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Nuclear Snow? Power Plant Yields Snow in Pennsylvania

You've probably heard of lake-effect snow and ocean-effect snow, but now you should add "nuclear snow" to the list of strange winter weather phenomena. As the Midwest and East shivers under a bitterly cold air mass, waste heat given off from the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Plant near Shippingport, Pa., generated a narrow band of snow. Up to an inch of snow fell as a result of the steam billowing from the stacks.

The snowfall was also the result of steam vented from the Bruce Mansfield Generating Station, which is a coal-burning power plant that is located next to the nuclear facility in Shippingport.

Doppler radar image from the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, PA.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: NWS.

The steam from these power plants added heat and moisture to an extremely cold and dry atmosphere, causing the moisture to condense and form clouds and snow flurries. It's not uncommon for steam from power plant cooling towers to help form clouds in downwind areas, but it is rare for them to produce precipitation like this, and even rarer still to see it so clearly via Doppler radar imagery. 

Not to worry though, this snow should not contain elevated levels of radiation, and poses no danger to public health.

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By adamskj (Pittsburgh, PA)
on January 23rd, 2013

Bruce Mansfield Power Station, a coal-fired electrical station, is right next door to Beaver Valley.  Bruce Mansfield is about 2.7 GWe, about 50% larger than Beaver Valley (1.8 GWe), and Bruce Mansfield also uses three parabolic cooling towers to Beaver Valley’s two.  I don’t know how much water vapor is actually produced at each through the towers, but, given that coal plants and nuclear plants run at roughly the same level of thermal efficiency, they’re both dumping about the same amount of heat into the river and air for each unit of electricity produced, and I’m assuming the towers are making roughly the same amount of water vapor per unit of electricity. 

Long story short, the coal plant next door probably made at least half of that snow, so the story’s only half right about the source of it.

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By Andrew Freedman (NYC)
on January 23rd, 2013

Hi adamski,

Thanks for the tip. This story was based on info from the NWS, which specifically cited the nuclear power plant, not the Bruce Mansfield Power Station. But if the two are located so closely together, it is quite possible they combined to create this artificial snow. Thanks - A

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By Andrew
on January 23rd, 2013

Adamski - I’ve updated the story to reflect your observation. Thanks much! - A

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By Butch (Shippingport, PA 15077)
on January 24th, 2013

Actually the five cooling towers (both nuclear and coal plants) can each evaporate approximately 10,000 gallons of water per minute when all plants are running at 100% power. So that is a lot of water vapor.  Since I live near (and work at) the plants it was quite evident where the snow I was driving through came from.

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By Cory Stansbury (16063)
on January 24th, 2013

Thermal power for both reactors is 2689 MW.  That leaves 3488 MW to be released through the coolant towers (minus a bit for thermal losses).  In addition, you have Bruce Mansfield next door which is 2741 MWe.  If we assume 40% efficiency for the units, that’s 6852 MWt, leaving 4111 MW released from that plant.  That’s a total of ~7600 MW to generate snow.  So, only 46% of the snow was nuclear.

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