with Paulina Firozi


Hurricane Florence has blown a hole in the Trump administration's argument that bolstering nuclear and coal-fired power is essential to providing reliable electricity to homes and businesses, especially during times of crisis, according to energy experts long critical of the plan.

For months, the Department of Energy has considered throwing a lifeline to that sector of the power market to make the electric grid more resilient to natural and man-made disasters. The Trump administration has been preparing to use a Cold War-era law, once marshaled by President Harry S. Truman to secure U.S. steel production, to compel regional grid operators to buy electricity from nuclear and coal plants.

The rationale is that only these two types of generation regularly have enough fuel on site to run for when national security is threatened. Wind turbines and solar panels only generate electricity when the weather is right while natural gas stations often have their fuel pipelined in from afar.

But hours before the once powerful hurricane made landfall in North Carolina on Friday, Duke Energy shut down its two reactors at the Brunswick Nuclear Plant near Wilmington, N.C.​​​​ in anticipation of high winds. The temporary shutdown illustrates how many other factors beyond just fuel stored on site affect grid reliability. 

"There are so many flaws to their argument, we hardly need this to add," said David Hart, professor of public policy at George Mason University. "There are lots of better ways to get reliability than to stockpile a lot of fuel."

One cause of power outages is, of course, downed power lines. According to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, trees falling on local distribution lines cause most storm-related power outages. Damage to transmission lines, the main arteries of the electric grid, tend to cause major outages.

The delivery system for electricity, rather than its source, tends to be what is most vulnerable during storms.

Christine Tezak, managing director of research at ClearView Energy Partners, said that "outages under these circumstances are more grid-related than generation-related, and don’t seem to provide compelling data for or against any generation resource."

In the case of the Brunswick plant, while floodwaters have not breached the facility, located 4 miles from the Atlantic, safety officials still do not want to run the plant after the storm until flooding subsided and roads are accessible, in case the facility and surrounding area needed to be evacuated in the unlikely event of severe disaster at the plant.

"Many of the roads leading to the plant are not passable," said Joey Ledford, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Over the weekend, that independent agency, which regulates nuclear safety, declared a “hazardous event” due to difficulty Duke Energy workers were having getting to the reactors. 

As of 11 p.m. Monday night, 223,000 Duke Energy customers remained without power

Other extreme weather events can hamper power generation at its source, no matter how they produce electricity. Strong winds can send solar panels flying. Cold snaps can freeze stockpiles of coal.

When it comes to hurricanes, the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association for the U.S. nuclear business, argued that the hulking concrete buildings that house reactors handle high winds particularly well, allowing them to usually restart more quickly than their competitors after hurricanes.

"The real question isn't whether you can run all the way through an event," said Matt Wald, a spokesman for the group. "The real question is, if you shut down, how fast can you come back."

He added that in Puerto Rico, for example, last year's Hurricane Maria "shredded everything, including wind turbines and solar panels." The territory does not have any nuclear power plants.

The Energy Department has yet to detail exactly what the plan to bolster coal and nuclear will look like after Trump ordered aid in June. The request comes as expensive coal and nuclear assets are retiring across the country in the face of competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy resources.

In a speech that month, Energy Secretary Rick Perry suggested that the slew of retirements, "if unchecked, will threaten our ability to recover from intentional attacks and natural disasters," according to the Associated Press.

Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser to the Bill Clinton White House, said it is particularly perverse to include coal power in the bailout plan given the contribution its emissions make to climate change, which in turn fuels fiercer storms like Florence. 

"Claiming that coal and nuclear, if only they were more dispatchable, they would prevent most blackouts is laughable if it weren't potentially tragic," Bledsoe said.


— Florence’s waters overtake toxic coal ash pit: The tropical storm has brought so much water to North Carolina that the wall of a coal ash landfill near Lake Sutton "has failed in several places, washing away more than 2,000 cubic yards of toxic waste, enough to fill more than 150 dump trucks," The Post's Steven Mufson, Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report. In total, Duke Energy owns 32 coal ash disposal basins across North Carolina.

Another concern are lagoons of waste from the state's many hog farms. "Monday afternoon, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said it had received reports of discharges or overtopping of lagoons at seven locations. Four other lagoons had been inundated by floodwaters," they report. "Fourteen lagoons were at or near their capacity."

Overflowing from either type of site threaten waterways with pollution. In 1999 during Hurricane Floyd, "hog lagoons across the eastern part of North Carolina broke open and dumped tons of liquid and solid waste into the storm waters. That material flowed downstream, eventually settling in coastal estuaries. It was blamed for elevated nitrogen and phosphorous levels, algae blooms and fish kills."

A view from above shows the heavy flooding in Carolina Beach, N.C. on Sept.17, as Florence continues to impact the area. (Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

— The latest on Florence: The storm has passed, but the devastation as a result of Florence is still days away from reaching its crest, The Post’s Patricia Sullivan, Rachel Siegel, Mark Berman and Joel Achenbach report. As of Monday, the death toll in connection with the storm had increased to 32, there were 1,500 closed roads, thousands of people are in emergency shelters and hundreds of thousands of people were without power. “Florence, the once-powerful hurricane that swept across the Carolinas in recent days, has prompted a widespread emergency across all of North Carolina, from the ocean east to mountain west,” Berman and The Post’s Katie Zezima and Allyson Chiu write. “Floodwaters are expected to push many rivers to all-time highs and could spur life-threatening landslides as the storm’s remnants move west.”

Who is most vulnerable: Farmworkers and homeless people in the Carolinas have been particularly impacted by the devastation. “Homeless shelters have seen an influx of people who rode out the storm at emergency evacuation centers but now have nowhere to go,” The Post’s Siegel, Zezima and Kristine Phillips report. “Advocates for farmworkers said many did not know the storm was coming, because there were few warnings in Spanish, and stayed in crowded housing facilities with inadequate food and water.”

As the remnants of Florence sweep by, stormy weather is drifting into the Washington area, and The Post’s Jason Samenow reports of the potential for downpours in the region. 

A U.S. Army helicopter from Fort Bragg delivered food for a hospital in Wilmington N.C., on Sept. 17, after roads leading to the city flooded. (Zoeann Murphy, Rachel Siegel/The Washington Post)

More in Florence-related news:

  • Just 10 percent of homes in the counties in the Carolinas that were hit hard by Florence have flood insurance, The Post’s Heather Long and Andrew Van Dam report. This will prove to be a problem because while insured people can get hundreds of thousands to rebuild, others will have to rely solely on disaster aid. “Some wrongly believe they do not need insurance because they can rely on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants, but those cover only up to $33,000 in damages,” Long and Van Dam write. “The typical payout is a few thousand dollars. Flood insurance, in contrast, covers up to $250,000 for the home and another $100,000 for possessions.”
  • FEMA’s flood insurance chief said Monday the government is ready to handle the rush of claims that will be filed by homeowners impacted by the storm. "As the days continue, we'll be able to start to get the number of claims being submitted, get adjusters out in the field when it's safe, and when it's safe for policyholders to be in their homes," David Maurstad, FEMA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Insurance and Mitigation and the chief executive of the National Flood Insurance Program, told CNBC.
  • With flooding set to worsen in the coming days, thousands of troops in the U.S. military are “prepared to help and begin flying aircraft from Navy ships nearby to survey the worst areas,” The Post’s Dan Lamothe reports. “The Pentagon’s effort involved about 13,000 U.S. troops over the weekend, but the number could rise if river flooding is substantial."
  • In coastal Virginia, even the near-miss from Florence will be pricey. Preparations ahead of the storm could cost up to $75 million for state agencies, The Post’s Gregory S. Schneider reports. “That total dwarfs costs from any other storm in the past nine years,” he writes. “Two unique factors drove up the expense: Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to order the evacuation of some 245,000 residents from low-lying parts of Hampton Roads and the opening of two state-sponsored emergency shelters."
Be it atop a bridge or in nearby neighborhoods, people in Fayetteville, N.C. are watching the Cape Fear River. It could still rise in the wake of Florence, in a region still recovering from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. (Billy Tucker, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

— The Maria Generation: Puerto Rico's slow recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria has proved be to painful across the island. But in particular, it has created “dire circumstances” for children who have seen their homes destroyed, their friends move to the mainland, and nearly 300 schools close. They have faced suicide, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The "longer chaos persists, psychologists and disaster experts said, the more damaging a disaster like Hurricane Maria becomes for vulnerable kids,” CNN reports in this lengthy investigation. “One researcher called them ‘The Maria Generation.' A recognition that they may be forever shaped by the storm.”


— FEMA chief fights for his job: William “Brock” Long is facing a potential criminal investigation related to his use of government vehicles after an internal probe regarding his travel was referred to federal prosecutors, The Post’s Nick Miroff and William Wan report. “Long has been under scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general for using the vehicles to travel between Washington and his home in Hickory, N.C., where his wife and children live,” they write. “Long’s predicament has put the White House in an awkward position… President Trump has been pleased with Long’s performance at FEMA, and officials are worried about the potential fallout of removing him while large parts of North and South Carolina remain underwater from Florence.”

— Tariff woes: The Trump administration on Monday slapped new tariffs on $200 billion more in Chinese goods, The Post’s David J. Lynch and Damian Paletta report. “With Monday’s announcement, roughly half of the $505 billion in goods that Americans buy annually from Chinese firms will face new import levies," they write. "Unlike the $50 billion in Chinese products that Trump hit in the first tariff wave, in July — which fell mainly on industrial goods — Monday’s action will affect consumer products such as air conditioners, spark plugs, furniture and lamps.”

The move set up an immediate retaliation from China: Beijing said it would swiftly retaliate against Trump’s new tariffs, “setting the stage for a protracted dispute that could raise prices of household goods in both countries,” The Post’s Danielle Paquette reports. “The Chinese government previously warned it will hit back with tariffs on an additional $60 billion in American goods following Trump’s escalation, which would slap higher border taxes on nearly all U.S. exports to China.”

— Watchdog says EPA whiffs on asbestos inspections: The Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog said in a report released Monday that the agency did not adequately monitor asbestos levels at schools. Between 2011 and 2015, the EPA conducted only 13 percent of inspections under federal law, "whereas states with jurisdiction over their own inspections performed 87 percent,” the report reads. “Of the agency’s 10 regions, five only inspect for asbestos in schools when they receive asbestos-related tips or complaints. Without compliance inspections, the EPA cannot know whether schools pose an actual risk of asbestos exposure to students and personnel.”

In a statement, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud pointed fingers at the previous administration for inadequate monitoring and said the Trump administration is “taking proactive steps to reduce asbestos exposure," according to The Hill.

— Former mine safety official blasts Trump administration: Robert F. Cohen, whose term as a member of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission expired last month, blasted the Trump administration before his departure for easing a worker safety rule, criticizing the administration’s “unlawful” action he said could put “lives of the nation’s miners” at risk. “Cohen's criticism was in response to the Trump administration easing enforcement of a key worker safety rule against a West Virginia coal mine, despite finding ‘significant and substantial’ violations at the facility,” NBC News reports. “Cohen blasted the administration for a ‘corrupted reading’ of the law.” Before his term ended, Cohen wrote in a dissent that “as an independent agency charged with reviewing enforcement actions brought by the Secretary, this Commission should not assent to such an illegal act.”


— The road ahead for Tesla: Chief executive Elon Musk told a customer Sunday on Twitter that the company has entered a new stage of hell, shifting from “production hell” to “delivery logistics hell,” in response to a customer’s complaint about a repeated delay on delivery dates and a photo of what “appeared to be many Model 3 sedans parked in a holding area,” The Post’s Hamza Shaban reports. “Musk apologized and told the customer the issue would be resolved."

"The Model 3, Tesla’s mass-market vehicle that is envisioned to transform the ambitious company into a profitable business, has been plagued by delays in production," Shaban adds."But Tesla in June reached a long-delayed goal of producing 5,000 Model 3′s per week. The automaker expects to sustain that pace through the third quarter, and Musk has promised that by the end of the year Tesla will turn an annual profit for the first time in its 15-year history."



  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard holds a hearing on ocean resource conflicts.
  • The United States Energy Association holds the U.S.-China Oil and Gas Industry Forum.

Coming Up

  • The German Marshall Fund holds a roundtable on the digital energy nexus on Thursday.
  • National Journal hosts a discussion on the changing energy grid on Thursday.
  • The Heritage Foundation holds an event on “The Fuel Cell Corporate Scandal in Delaware” on Friday.

— The devastation from above:  A look at flooding from Florence in Carolina Beach, N.C.:

A view from above shows the heavy flooding in Carolina Beach, N.C. on Sept.17, as Florence continues to impact the area. (Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)