Operators of a nuclear power plant in the path of Hurricane Irma kept one reactor operating during the cyclone, despite failing to bring the plant up to federal safety code and long-known concerns about the danger faced by nuclear power plants during power outages.
The Turkey Point nuclear plant in Homestead, along the southeast Florida coast, was in the midst of a region with 5 million power outages —"unprecedented," according to Florida Power and Light CEO Eric Silagy — yet kept operating even though the risk of a serious accident rises significantly in a power outage, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“When there’s a possibility to lose power, why would you take the risk of increasing that?” Maggie Gundersen, founder of Fairewinds Energy Education and former nuclear industry employee, told Newsweek.
“It’s just absolute hubris and a huge risk to the population.”
The most likely problem for a nuclear power plant in a hurricane, added Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, “is a loss of power to the plants.”
“Most people don’t understand this, but you need electricity going into a power plant — two sources of it generally to be on the safe side — to make sure that the electric motors that control things like safety control rods are running,” he added.
Peter Bradford, a Carter administration appointee to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, also questioned the decision to keep one reactor operating.
"Perhaps they ... wanted (it) up for bragging rights in the nuclear industry's ongoing search for subsidies based on high reliability,” he said.
A VALVE FAILURE AMID DANGEROUS STORM SURGE AND WINDS
The plant dodged a bullet — power outages in the state did not ultimately lead to a disaster. But a part of the reactor's all-important cooling system, a piece called the steam generator's feed regulating valve, did fail on Sunday night, prompting engineers to finally shut the lone reactor in operation that night.
Again, disaster was averted. There is "no known primary-secondary steam generator tube leakage" — jargon for radiation — according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The failure of the valve is just one problem at the plant: Turkey Point knew that it had improvements to make. The plant failed to improve seals on its exterior doors, which would produce “substantial leakage” in a hurricane, as well as improve floodwater drainage mechanisms near "key" cooling pumps, according to a flood- and hurricane-preparedness report the power plant sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June — a requirement of post-Fukushima regulations.
Turkey Point is also at risk of failure of its cooling system, experts say. The Component Cooling Water pump rooms “do not have a roof and are exposed to the rainfall," the report read. In the event of flooding, operators of the plant would drain the room with pumps. But those pumps can only run for two hours after the electricity goes out.
That pump room is the "Achilles Heel" of Turkey Point, said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"Without Component Cooling Water during an accident," he said, "workers must deploy backup to backup systems. At Fukushima, workers were unable to accomplish this task in time to prevent three reactor cores from overheating."
Florida Water and Light has not commented on the valve malfunction or the precautions that it failed to take.