Yet another Florida nuclear plant may be in trouble.
More than 3,700 tubes that help cool a nuclear reactor at Florida Power & Light’s St. Lucie facility exhibit wear. Most other similar plants have between zero and a few hundred.
Worst case: A tube bursts and spews radioactive fluid. That’s what happened at the San Onofre plant in California two years ago. The plant shut down forever because it would have cost too much to fix.
FPL says its plant is safe, the rate of wear is slowing and its customers’ multibillion-dollar investment in the plant is not in jeopardy.
“The bottom line is, these components are functioning within their requirements, and if they weren’t they would be removed from service,” said Michael Waldron, an FPL spokesman.
FPL is so confident in St. Lucie’s condition that it boosted the plant’s power. The utility acknowledged that will aggravate wear on the tubes, located inside steam generators.
Critics say that’s like pressing hard on the accelerator, even when you know the car has worn brakes.
“The damn thing is grinding down,” said Daniel Hirsch, a University of California at Santa Cruz nuclear policy lecturer. “They must be terrified internally. They’ve got steam generators that are now just falling apart.”
FPL, the state’s largest electric utility, brought the St. Lucie 2 plant online in 1983, about 50 miles north of West Palm Beach.
In 2007, FPL installed two new steam generators for $140 million, intending them to last until the plant’s license expires in 2043. Each generator contained about 9,000 tubes, which are 50 to 70 feet long.
In 2009, FPL shut down the reactor for routine refueling. An inspection found that the tubes were banging against the stainless steel antivibration bars, leaving dents and wear spots.
More than 2,000 tubes showed some wear in 5,855 separate places. (A tube can be worn in multiple spots.)
In 2011, FPL again shut down the reactor and inspected the tubes. The wear had spread.
Affected tubes: 2,978, up 46 percent from 2009.
Worn spots: 8,825, up 51 percent.
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On Jan. 31, 2012, a “high radiation alarm” went off at the San Onofre 3 plant south of Los Angeles.
A tube inside a steam generator had burst, belching irradiated fluid into the containment building. No one was hurt.
The plant went into “rapid power reduction” and shut down, according to NRC documents.
San Onofre 3 had received two new steam generators less than a year earlier. After the leak, inspectors found 1,806 tubes worn in 10,284 places. They also found an unusually high number of worn tubes at the nearby San Onofre 2 plant.
The burst tube had rubbed against another tube, which may explain why it wore out so fast. But, as at St. Lucie, much of the wear to the tubes appeared at the antivibration bars.
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