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Nuclear Regulators Inspecting Turkey Point After Reactor Shut Down

Updated 2020 Turkey Point photo
Doug Murray/Doug Murray
Florida Power & Light
Aerial view of Turkey Point Power Plant nuclear units 3 and 4 taken 2/10/2008.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent a team of inspectors to Turkey Point this week after one of Florida Power and Light’s aging nuclear reactors shut down three times over four days.

The week of Aug. 17, plant operators manually shut down Unit 3, the older of the two reactors licensed in 1972, twice after seeing warning signs, said NRC spokesman Roger Hannah. The unit then automatically shut down a third time, he said.

“This is probably a very poor analogy, but it's like cars that have automatic braking systems,” he said. “If you see that you're going to hit something, you're probably better to put your foot on the brake than wait for the car to implement the automatic braking system. “

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When operators spotted trouble in two instances, they shut down the unit.

Having three shut downs in such quick succession caught regulators' attention. Typically, reactors are flagged if they have three shutdowns during 7,000 hours of operation.

In this case, Hannah said, inspectors considered the way the shutdowns happened.

“Once our staff determined that it met that threshold, we decided that a special inspection was appropriate,” he said.

Inspectors will be at the plant through the week and likely take six weeks to file their findings.

In an email, FPL spokesman Peter Robbins said operators initially shut down the reactor to repair a part of the plant not connected to the nuclear plant.

“The additional shutdowns happened as we determined that additional work and repairs were needed,” the statement said. “In all three cases, the reactor was shut down in a matter of seconds, and all safety systems responded as designed.”

Nuclear regulators relicensed the two nuclear units last year, making them the first in the 1970s-era fleet of nuclear reactors built in the U.S. to win a third extension. Originally, licenses covered 40 years. By the time the latest license expires, the units will be twice as old as their original approval.

The aging plant has drawn criticism from neighbors and environmentalists who worry regulators failed to fully consider sea rise and troubled cooling canals that have been blamed for polluting Biscayne Bay. In Miami-Dade County, commissioners called for them to be retired.

The canals were originally a compromise reached with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s after the agency raised concerns over the plant polluting the bay. The canals were dredged across nearly 6,000 acres to act as a radiator to provide water to cool the plant. A deeper canal was dredged along the western border to prevent canal water from leaking into groundwater. But as canal water grew saltier and sank, the deeper canal failed.

Canal water has now spread more than three miles inland, threatening drinking water supplies for the Florida Keys.

Last week, Monroe County joined a lawsuit originally filed by the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association challenging a new pollution permit for the plant. The permit, which had not been renewed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for 10 years, allows canal water to seep into groundwater.

“To extend a cooling canal system, which is unique in the world for any power plant, logically tells us that may not be the safest route to go,” said Capt. Steve Friedman, commodore of the guides association. “It’s creating a plume of massive saline water risking the Biscayne aqueduct. So you tell me what’s right.”

The canals are now in the midst of a Miami-Dade County ordered clean-up expected to cost ratepayers at least $176 million.

The three shutdowns at the plant in August is higher than expected and “fairly unusual,” Hannah said.

Nationwide, special site inspections at nuclear plants occur about five or six times a year, he said.

While on site, inspectors will talk to operators and look at operation logs.

“They will look at whether equipment may have been an issue. At this point, we just don't know,” he said. “And certainly that's one of the questions that we will ask is, 'Did the equipment operate the way it should have?'”