This paper describes an optimization-based approach to reducing extreme structural loads during rapid or emergency shutdown of multi-megawatt wind turbine generators. The load reduction problem is cast into an optimal control formulation, and a simple, low-order model is developed in order for this optimization problem to be tractable in reasonable time using state-of-the-art numerical methods. To handle the variations in wind speed and turbulence inherent to wind turbine operation as well as the presence of model mismatch, a real-time optimization strategy based on fast sensitivity updates is also considered, whose online computational burden is limited to the repeated solution of quadratic programs that are designed offline. The low-order model and both the open-loop and closed-loop optimal control strategies are validated against a high-fidelity model in the simulation environment Bladed™ for an industrial 3 MW wind turbine. Under favorable shutdown scenarios, i.e. when the wind turbine is operating properly and the actuators and sensors are not faulty, large reductions of the first compressive peak and subsequent compressive/tensile peaks of the tower load pattern are obtained at various above-rated wind speeds compared with normal pitch control shutdown. Extension to more challenging shutdown scenarios are also discussed. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.