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Three outages prompt reactor inspections

Source: 
Florida Keys Free Press

HOMESTEAD - The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent inspectors to Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point last week after three power outages, or "trips," took place between Aug. 17 and 20 in nuclear reactor Unit 3.

The week-long inspection of the Westinghouse AP1000 uranium-based nuclear reactor was expected to end as early as Friday, Sept. 4, but the results won't be available until mid-October at the earliest, according to NRC spokesman Roger Hannah.

"We need to see if there is anything else we need to gather before issuing the results of the inspection," he said.

Such outages are rare but pose no threat to the general public, Hannah said.

"It's fairly uncommon. It's something that we found unusual enough to investigate what the cause is. We do know that there were no safety malfunctions. We just want to find out what happened and if they - the operators - had a proper response," he said.

Turkey Point Unit 3 began operation in 1972 and is poised to be one of the longest-running nuclear reactors in the U.S., along with its twin tower, Unit 4, after the NRC issued a subsequent license renewal last year prolonging the reactors' use until 2052 and 2053, respective-ly, which Monroe County and environmentalists are challenging, due primarily to the FPL's reliance on unlined cooling canals instead of modern cooling towers.

Turkey Point's two fossil fuel oil-fired Units 1 and 2 and nuclear Units 3 and 4 consists of non-contact, once-through condenser cooling water that ultimately discharge to the facility's approximately 6,700-acre onsite, closedloop cooling canal system that may reach a temperature of up to 104 degrees.

Monroe County joined the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association in challenging the state Department of Environmental Protection's notice of intent to issue a new discharge permit to Turkey Point for continued use of its leaky cooling canals.

In 2016, the DEP mandated that Turkey Point, within 10 years, withdraw a cooling canal-originated hypersaline plume that sprawls east and west underground, threatening the region's drinking water supply.

U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell has called on the NRC for stricter oversight of Turkey Point.

"While the report described the issues as having 'very low safety significance,' some in the scientific community have expressed to me that this classification is not suitable and that the problems should have been taken more seriously," she wrote in a letter to NRC Chairwoman Kristine L. Svinicki.

"Given recent events, I urge you to seriously scrutinize the culture of safety at the power plant, both in recent weeks and over past years, to determine if there are larger, more systemic issues that may have been missed previously."

On Aug. 17, Turkey Point operators manually tripped the Unit 3 reactor in response to rising steam generator water levels.

Two days later, the plant's reactor protection system automatically tripped during startup when an instrument sensed higher-than-expected neutron activity in the reactor core and, on Aug. 20, operators manually tripped the reactor in response to the loss of the single operating steam generator feed-water pump.

Nuclear power plants are designed to shut down in certain instances.

"The overall safety implications are minimal. Plants are designed to shut down," said FPL spokesman Peter Robbins. "The operators shut it down twice and it shut down once automatically.

In each case the backup systems in place worked well."

Automatic trips challenge the safety systems more than manual shutdowns, according to Robbins. The trips are a result of rising steam generator water levels that throw off the balance of steam and water.

Robbins said the water used to generate steam inside Units 3 and 4 does not mix with the cooling canals. Unit 4 was unaffected by the trips.

"The situation we had had nothing to do the cooling canals," Robbins added.

"These shutdowns happen in the nuclear industry and the important thing is that we respond. This inspection is a way to share the details of what happened.

We will continue to share everything in complete transparency. Our goal is to learn from this and get better."

Kelly Cox, general counsel at Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit conservation group, said the recent failures at Turkey Point should be a vote of no confidence for current operations.

"These plants were constructed during the Cold War-era and we continue to rely on these aging reactors," Cox said. "The recent license extension for the reactors would give them an unprecedented 80-year lifespan. The power trips and failures at Turkey Point are warning shots - these plants, and the system of failing cooling canals they rely on, are not prepared to operate through the 2050s."

The five-person NRC inspection team was to review the circumstances of each trip, assess the company's response, operator performance, corrective actions and evaluate the application of industry operating experience.

A report documenting the results of the inspection will be issued within 45 days of inspection's completion, according to Hannah.

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