Beaver County nuke plant makes snow for Allegheny, Westmoreland counties

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 2:36 p.m.

First things first: It wasn't nuclear snow.

But the snow that fell on parts of the Alle-Kiski Valley on Tuesday night did originate from the cooling towers at the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station in Shippingport, Beaver County.

A radar image from the National Weather Service in Moon showing a swath of snow extending eastward from the power plant was making the rounds of social-media sites on Wednesday.

Each of the plant's two operating cooling towers emits moist steam that evaporates into the environment at the rate of about 10,000 gallons per minute, according to Jennifer Young, a spokeswoman for FirstEnergy. Water in the cooling towers is at 90 to 95 degrees.

The coal-fueled Bruce Mansfield Station adjacent to the nuclear plant has three operating cooling towers, she said.

Last night, the steam was being released into very cold and dry air, said meteorologist Lee Hendricks of the National Weather Service.

“Essentially, it's a micro-scale of what a lake-effect snow event is — warm, moist air moving over a cool surface cooling the air and causing it to lose the moisture in the clouds,” Hendricks said. “In this case it came down as snow.”

The effect began between 5 and 6 p.m. Tuesday and continued through around midnight.

The snow produced was, at the most, about 2 miles wide, said National Weather Service meteorologist Rihaan Gangat.

Based on radar, it extended east about 30 miles from the power plant over southeast Beaver County and northern Allegheny County, he said.

Hendricks said people living in Tarentum, New Kensington and Lower Burrell commented on the weather service's Facebook page about getting snow from it.

Within the affected area, there were reports of as much as an inch of snow, Gangat said.

“It covered the roads up pretty quickly,” Gangat said.

Like lake effect snow, it was dry and fluffy.

“It doesn't glow,” Hendricks said, referring to its origin at a nuclear power plant.

Enough snow fell to significantly reduce visibility and slow traffic on Interstate 79 in the Wexford area, Hendricks said.

PennDOT spokesman Jim Struzzi said a white-out snow event swept across the northwest area of Allegheny County during the evening rush hour.

The heaviest snow came through between 6 and 8 p.m., with some areas getting 1 to 3 inches of snow in a short time. It kept road crews busy all night, Struzzi said.

There were no reported crashes, but the conditions “caused traffic to stop due to poor visibility,” Struzzi said. “This stop caused considerable congestion and significant residual traffic delays.”

Hendricks said the effect is not all that unusual. Emissions from the cooling towers often cause drizzle in their immediate area, he said.

“It's something everyone who lives out there is familiar with,” Hendricks said. “Usually it's just a local effect.

“This was much more widespread than it normally is.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or

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