Jerry Bischof's work pager buzzed as the server arrived with his plate of herb-rubbed salmon.
The message told him that power to one of the two nuclear reactors at Surry Power Station had been lost. It was operating on backup generators.
Before he could find out what happened, the pager buzzed again indicating the second reactor was running on backup power.
Bischof, the station's manager, thought the paging system was broken. Never in his 23 years as a nuclear engineer had both reactors lost power simultaneously.
Only a grave mistake or something sudden, violent and powerful could cause such a scenario.
That something, Bischof later discovered, was a tornado that sent workers ducking for cover as it screamed through the power plant, narrowly missing the reactors and 2.5 million pounds of radioactive waste.
The twister snapped in half hundreds of trees, downed power lines and ripped apart a maintenance building and the switchyard, which carries electricity in and out of the plant.
Bischof, who left his wife with friends at the dinner table in Richmond, arrived at Surry less than two hours later. His assessment: the plant was relatively unscathed despite enduring the worst natural calamity in its 39-year history.
"It certainly was the biggest test I've had in my time," said Bischof, whose stint in Surry includes Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
The plant usually runs a skeleton crew on weekends, but April 16 was different. Dominion Virginia Power, which owns the facility, planned to shut down one of the reactors at midnight for routine refueling.
The National Weather Service began issuing tornado warnings that morning, not long before 100 or so contractors arrived to help roughly 50 Dominion employees with the refueling.
Tornadoes are not common in Hampton Roads, but emergency responders — including those at the plant — train for them. Still, there was no indication this would be different from the dozens of warnings that never materialized into storms since the plant opened in 1972.
That would change.
The tornado formed a few miles south of the plant at 6:45 p.m. Steven Davis, the supervisor in charge, received a phone call minutes later from an off-duty employee who spotted it.
Davis hustled to the control room to alert plant operators as winds estimated up to 165 mph crossed Hog Island Road and burst through barbed wire gates that surround the facility.
The twister cut a 200-yard wide path into the switchyard, which is a series of towers, aluminum tubes and wires that, in addition to powering the plant, funnel 1,600 megawatts of electricity into the nation's electricity grid.
The towers held steady but the tubes and wires went flying. Power to the reactors was lost.
Inside the cocoon of the control room, the lights flickered then went out. Hundreds of gauges that monitor the reactors' temperature and other vital information lit the dim room.
"At the moment it happens, there's that instant surprise," Davis said.
Within seconds, four diesel generators automatically churned to life, restoring power to the plant. Davis and his team determined no radiation beyond what's normal was released. Security accounted for the workers and contractors, most of whom were in buildings safe from the tornado. No one was injured.
It was a situation that most operators spend their entire careers preparing for but never encounter.
"We train for it all the time, but nobody believes it's ever going to happen," Davis said.
Built to last
Even if the tornado hit the reactors or waste, there would be no fallout, Dominion spokesman Rick Zuercher said, alluding to the disaster in Japan, where a tsunami struck causing the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
Reactors at Surry are encased in 8- to 12-inch thick plates of steel. A containment structure with 2.5- to 4.5-foot thick steel-reinforced concrete walls provides another barrier. The apparatus stands on a concrete pad that extends 10 feet underground.
The structures are built to survive winds up to 300 mph and a 5.9-magnitude earthquake, Zuercher said.
Nuclear waste at Surry and its sister plant, North Anna Power Station in Louisa County, is stored in steel-reinforced, concrete pools and concrete casks that are as strong as the reactor structure, he said.
"The reactors, spent fuel pool, control room — all are designed to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes," Zuercher said.
Such was the case last week when a twister rattled through Browns Ferry, a nuclear power plant in Alabama. Like Surry, winds damaged the switchyard but not the reactors or the waste storage vessels.
David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety project, recalled only three tornado strikes on nuclear power plants prior to Surry and Browns Ferry.
The most recent occurred in 1998 at Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Ohio, where winds knocked out the switchyard. Backup generators kicked on to keep the reactors cool but one generator failed due to air temperatures that exceeded 90 degrees, Lochbaum said.
Luckily, he said, the utility company repaired the switchyard and restored power an hour beforehand.
"Had it been one hour the other way, things would have been different," Lochbaum said.
In Surry, Dominion crews restored electricity to each reactor six hours after the tornado stuck; backup power lines were in place Sunday night, Zuercher said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which had been monitoring the plant since the tornado struck, shut down its emergency operations center on Tuesday after additional redundancies were established.
"They were fortunate the storm didn't do more damage," said Joey Ledford, a spokesman from the commission's Atlanta office.
A recent tour of the plant showed that Dominion has yet to fully recover from the tornado.
Blown-out van windows had not been replaced and tree limbs scattered along the road gave off the scent of freshly cut pine. Workers in the switchyard stocked piles of bent aluminum poles while electricians in bucket lifts made tweaks to electrical lines.
"You can see the new pieces out there, they're nice and shiny," said James "Ed" Collins, the plant's manager of emergency preparedness.
The utility has not tallied the cost of the damage, Zuercher said. One of the reactors began producing power a week after the disaster. The other is still being refueled, a process that usually takes a month.
The consensus among Dominion officials, nuclear regulators and watchdog groups is that the plant weathered the storm as designed and that plant employees and contractors responded as they were trained.
"The plant's reaction to this event was textbook," Bischof said. "There was never a nuclear emergency here."
Even so, Dominion officials admit they were lucky, too.
Of all the places that a tornado could strike, the switchyard is among the most ideal. It is free of radioactive material, employees seldom work there and it's relatively easy to repair.
And while much of the plant is built to withstand tornadoes and other natural disasters, it's something that employees would rather not test.
"We were fortunate," Zuercher said, "that it didn't hit the power station itself."
What happened? And when?
6:45 p.m. — A tornado forms a few miles south of Surry Power Station.
6:47 p.m. — The on-site manager is alerted by an off-duty employee.
6:48 p.m. — Winds estimated up to 165 mph hit the station.
6:49 p.m. — The switchyard and a maintenance building are destroyed; backup generators kick on after the two nuclear reactors briefly lose power.
6:50 p.m. — The tornado crosses the James River. Offsite leaders are notified via a text alert system.
7:15 p.m. — Station operators notify emergency responders, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and others.
8:30 p.m. (roughly) — NRC employees arrive at Surry; commission establishes emergency center in Atlanta, Ga.
12:45 a.m. — Partial power is restored as workers repair the switchyard.
7:45 a.m. — NRC discontinues around-the-clock monitoring after remaining two generators are turned off.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun