Is Another Nuclear Reactor in Trouble in Florida?

On March 3, 2014 Florida Power and Light (FPL) will bring the St. Lucie Unit 2 nuclear reactor near Fort Pierce, Florida down to perform a refueling of the radioactive fuel in the reactor’s core. FPL’s goal will be to swap the used, highly radioactive spent fuel rods out and put new fuel rods in as quickly as possible. The company will lose money everyday that the reactor is offline and not generating power, and they plan for this refueling to last about 30 days. This is a “routine” outage from FPL’s point of view, occurring about every 18-24 months. Yet recent outages nationwide have been anything but “routine,” and this cycle for St. Lucie is different in some very significant ways.

When FPL commissioned the reactor back in 1983, it was designed to produce 853 megawatts (MW) of power. In 2012, FPL received approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to allow the reactor to be run harder by increasing its power output by 17%. This outage will be the first time the St. Lucie Unit 2 reactor has completed a fuel cycle after operating at the higher power rating. Let’s not forget that this power uprate qualified as new nuclear generation under Florida’s controversial early nuclear cost recovery statute, also known as Florida’s “nuclear tax,” ultimately costing FPL customers just over $1 billion.

While St. Lucie had begun running at a higher power output, across the country in California the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), near San Diego, was the center of a major investigation that lead to the June 7, 2013 permanent retirement of San Onofre units 2-3. San Onofre unit 1 was shut down and retired in 1992 after 25 years of operation. On January 31, 2012 San Onofre unit 3 had a steam generator tube rupture and release radioactive steam, forcing the reactor to shut down. When other steam generator tubes were examined in units 2 and 3 they were found to have significant premature wear from vibrations occurring during operation. Over 3,000 tubes showed signs of premature wear, a number significantly higher than has been seen in every other reactor in this country except one: Florida’s St. Lucie Unit 2.

While the debate in California raged about the future of San Onofre, a significant amount of new information has been learned about steam generators – the thousands of tubes that make up this massive piece of equipment – and what can happen when they are replaced and modified. There are some striking similarities between San Onofre units 2-3 and St. Lucie unit 2: all three were designed by Combustion Engineering; all three use sea water for secondary cooling and therefore do not have the large cooling towers that many people identify with nuclear reactors; and all three went through steam generator replacements part-way through their operating license due to problems. During the steam generator replacement process, the utility made an unusual move by removing a device called a stay cylinder and in its place added more steam generator tubes. There is growing concern that these actions caused an increase in the vibrations that then led to more damage to the steam generator tubes. These findings were reported to Floridians by one of the country’s best investigative journalists, Ivan Penn, on February 22 in the Tampa Bay Times.

So what does this all mean? We believe that there is enough evidence to require a 100% inspection of the steam generators at St Lucie unit 2. Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds, who was closely involved in the SONGS investigation, has been told recently by the NRC that they are going to require FPL to do a 100% inspection during the upcoming refueling outage, but normally these reports are not made public until approximately 90 days after the reactors are placed back into service. That would be too late.

We believe the NRC should not allow the reactor to return to service until the inspection report is made public and the NRC holds a hearing discussing the results. Though FPL is highly motivated to rush the reactor back into service for financial reasons, the NRC has new evidence about what is taking place inside the steam generators that could lead to radioactive releases and potentially endanger the public. FPL has pushed for and received the ability to operate the reactor at a higher power, while knowing that the increased stress will increase damage to the steam generator tubes.

This is new ground – there is more damage to a reactor that’s under more stress and there is now more information that cannot be ignored. With over 1.1 million people within 50 miles of the St. Lucie reactors, including West Palm Beach, the NRC needs to make sure that all lessons learned from California’s San Onofre debacle are applied to the restart of a nuclear reactor here in Florida that already has the most damaged stream generators of any operating reactor in the country.

Links to Resources Cited During today’s Media Availability call at 1:30PM EST:

 

 

 

 

 

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