Nuclear plant Steam rises from the cooling tower of Progress Energy Shearon Harris Nuclear in New Hill, North Carolina. Overall, there are at least nine nuclear facilities within Florence’s projected impact area. (Photo: Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) – Hurricane Florence is now headed straight for Duke Energy Corp.’s Brunswick nuclear plant on North Carolina’s southern coast. Company officials say they’re ready; industry foes aren’t so sure.

Built to withstand Cat 5 winds

Brunswick’s two reactors, located near the town of Southport, were built to withstand Category 5 winds exceeding 156 miles (251 kilometers) per hour, according to Karen Williams, a Duke spokeswoman. They sit 20 feet above sea level and four miles inland, she said, suggesting they’re resistant to even the 13-foot ocean surge forecast for Florence.

The plan, she said, is to shut the 1,870-megawatt plant two hours before tropical storm-force winds reach the facility, which could happen as early as Thursday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center. Meanwhile, the company is providing extra personnel to monitor the plant.

9 nuclear facilities within Florence’s project path

Overall, there are at least nine nuclear facilities within Florence’s projected impact area. “Brunswick is closest to the eye, but every reactor exposed to hurricane-force winds will be shut down,” said Joey Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We’ve got inspectors at every plant.”

Still, the boiling water reactors used at Brunswick are similar to ones that melted down at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011, according to Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists. They have “a particular vulnerability to flooding,” he said.

Flood risk

Federal regulators added measures to prevent a similar accident in the U.S., including re-evaluating flood risk. But if Florence “truly is significantly greater than anything experienced at these plants, it may exceed even their re-evaluated hazard,” Lyman said.

“We don’t expect any impact from the storm surge,” Duke’s Williams said by phone. “We’ve been through many hurricanes since operations began in 1975.”

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