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US tornadoes force shutdown of two nuclear reactors in Virginia

Ewen MacAskill in Washington

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Series of storms that hit states from Oklahoma to North Carolina left at least 45 people dead and caused widespread damage

A US nuclear power company has disclosed that one of the tornadoes that hit the US at the weekend, killing at least 45 people and causing widespread damage, forced the shutdown of two of its reactors.

The series of tornadoes that began in Oklahoma late last week barrelled across the country, with North Carolina, where 22 people died, the worst-hit state.

North Carolina resident Deborah Dulow cleans up after the tornadoes
US tornadoes were most destructive in North Carolina, where Deborah Dulow, above, was left to survey the damage to her father's house. Photograph: Jim R Bounds/AP

The US nuclear safety regulator said on Mondayit was monitoring the Surry nuclear power plant in Virginia. Dominion Virginia Power said the two reactors shut down automatically when a tornado cut off power to the plant. A backup diesel generator kicked in to cool the fuel. The regulator said no radiation was released and staff were working to restore electricity to the plant.

The tornadoes were among the worst in the US in the past two decades. Last year, 10 people died in a tornado in Mississippi, while 57 were killed in North and South Carolina in 1984 and 330 across the south in 1974.

Two of the survivors of this year's storms, Audrey McKoy and her husband Milton, who live near Raleigh, North Carolina, told the Associated Press they had seen the tornado bearing down on them over the tops of pine trees. At a nearby farm, winds were lifting pigs and other animals into the sky. "It looked just like The Wizard of Oz," McKoy said.

They took shelter in their laundry room. After they emerged, disorientated, they realised that the tornado had turned their mobile home around.

The national weather centre in Raleigh issued detailed descriptions of the tornadoes and their paths of destruction.

One of them, with winds greater than 100mph, destroyed trees, ripped off roofs and wrecked power lines. It hit Shaw University in Raleigh and then strengthened to 110mph. "Snapped trees crashed on to and through numerous homes all along the path. It is in this area where three fatalities were reported when two mobile homes were thrown 30 to 50ft [nine to 15 metres]. Nearly all of the mobile homes in the park sustained some type of damage," the weather report said.

Thousands of workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the national disaster organisation, are being deployed in North Carolina to assess the damage.

The North Carolina governor, Bev Perdue, interviewed on the NBC Today programme, said the storms had ripped through homes as if they were made of paper.