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U.S. refiners, reactors eye restart as Irene passes

By Joshua Schneyer and Selam Gebrekidan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oil refineries and nuclear power plants along the U.S. East Coast eyed restarts on Sunday as Hurricane Irene left many with only minimal damage, while 3.6 million households and businesses remained without power.

The hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm with 60-miles-per-hour winds as it made landfall in New York, sparing the largest U.S. city the widespread power outages forecast by many.

Still, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warned it could take several days to restore power to areas experiencing blackouts on the East Coast.

New Jersey utility Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) said 330,000 customers could be without power for five to seven days. FEMA said the duration of outages on the East Coast would depend on whether systems were damaged by the storm or taken offline protectively.

New York City utility Consolidated Edison said on Sunday it had made no final decision on whether to cut power to lower Manhattan due to storm surges, but flooding in the area appeared less severe than feared.

Several East Coast oil refineries throttled back operations and ConocoPhillips shut its Bayway plant in New Jersey.

Conoco said Bayway remained shut on Sunday morning though its Trainer, Pennsylvania refinery continued to operate. No damage was reported at any plant on the East Coast as of 11:51 a.m.

PBF Energy said its New Jersey and Delaware refineries sustained no damage from the storm and were operating normally as of Sunday morning.

Two nuclear power plants were forced to shut during the storm, but Progress Energy said the units at its Brunswick plant in North Carolina should be back to full power within 36 hours.

A unit at Constellation Energy's Calvert Cliff plant in Maryland remained offline after an aluminum siding flew off a building and hit a transformer, forcing a precautionary shutdown on Saturday night. The firm said the reactor was safe and a second unit was running at full power.

As a precaution against winds, Exelon Corp took its Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in New Jersey offline on Saturday. The plant normally supplies electricity to as many as 600,000 homes.

The oil hub of New York Harbor is expected to resume normal operations on Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard said, after imposing severe traffic restrictions as the storm bared down. Traffic restrictions will remain in place on Sunday.

IRENE SWIPES NEW YORK CITY

Irene tracked north toward New England after landing only a glancing blow on New York City.

Just over 110,000 homes and businesses in the city's five boroughs and neighboring Westchester County were without power at 11:51 a.m. EDT, Con Edison said, less than 4 percent of the total the company powers in the region.

Con Edison estimated most would have power restored by 10:00 a.m. EDT on Monday.

The largest blackouts took place in Virginia, where almost 40 percent of households and businesses were without power, Dominion Resources said.

Dominion said its damage assessment would be completed by noon on Monday.

"We ask for your patience while we complete this important restoration step because it allows us to identify the extent of damage, prioritize restoration so we can restore power to the greatest number of customers in the shortest amount of time, and accurately predict when we will complete restoration," the company said on its website.

(Reporting by Selam Gebrekidan, Jeanine Prezioso, Joshua Schneyer, Janet McGurty, David Sheppard and Matthew Robinson in New York, Eileen O'Grady and Erwin Seba in Houston; Writing by David Sheppard and Joshua Schneyer; editing by Dale Hudson and Matthew Robinson)

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