At FPL's St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant, Components Show Wear That's 1,500 Times Worse than the Norm

Categories: Environment

homer_simpson_nuke.jpg
Anders Ljungberg via Flickr CC
Yesterday, 80 environmental activists from Earth First! protested at the Juno Beach headquarters of Florida Power & Light. Their mission was to bring attention to a proposed power plant in Hendry County.

But there's another concern about FPL: possible problems at the nuclear plant in St. Lucie. Tubes inside generators at the power plant show wear and tear that's 1,500 times greater than the norm.

FPL and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission insist nothing is wrong, but Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told the Tampa Bay Times that generators at the St. Lucie facility are "falling apart" and "the damn thing is grinding down... They must be terrified internally."

At a nuclear power plant, radioactive water travels through a closed-loop system. It gets heated in the nuclear reactor core, then is pumped out of the core through a steam generator and back into the core, in a cycle.

Inside the steam generator, radioactive water moves through thin tubes that are 50 to 70 feet long. There are 8,900 such tubes in each of two steam generators that were installed at the St. Lucie plant in 2007.

These tubes can get dented and wear down due to vibration inside the generator. If any of the tubes containing radioactive water were to burst, it could spew the liquid (though it should be contained in the building).

Hirsch said he and his students examined records from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and found that at the St. Lucie plant:

* In 2009, 2,000 of the tubes showed some wear in 5,855 separate places.
* In 2011, 2,978 of the tubes showed some wear in 8,825 separate places.

This is highly abnormal. In fact, it's 1,500 times higher than the norm. A 2009 comparison with about 20 similar power plants showed that the typical plant had fewer than 20 wear indications.

In 2012, a nuclear plant in San Onofre, California, had to close after a tube burst and radioactive fluid spewed. Inspectors found this power plant had 1,806 tubes worn in 10,284 places in its two steam generators. Critics fear that a similar accident could happen at the St. Lucie plant.

But FPL says it's not the number of wear indicators that matter; it's the severity of the wear. Think of a pipe -- a pipe can be dented and water can still flow through it just fine; it's only a major problem if there's a hole in the pipe.

The tubes are about as thick as a CD, the Tampa paper explained. In any spots where they get worn down by 40 percent of their normal thickness, they get plugged. FPL had plugged 155 of these at the time of its last inspection.

FPL spokesman Michael Waldron told the Tampa Bay Times, "The bottom line is, these components are functioning within their requirements, and if they weren't they would be removed from service."

The Palm Beach Post reported that "U.S. Nuclear Regulatory spokesman Joey Ledford said, 'There is no steam generator safety problem, nor is there a tube integrity safety concern at St. Lucie. If there were a safety concern, it would be reflected in our safety oversight program. We have two resident inspectors at St. Lucie every day.'"

Since its last inspection in 2012, the St. Lucie plant has cranked up its output by 12 percent.

Some scientists and nuclear engineers expressed concern, while others said the hubbub over the tubes was just an attempt to discredit nuclear energy.

The tubes are due to be inspected again in March.

(Meanwhile, yesterday's protesters from Earth First! are seeking donations for their legal defense.)

Send story tips to Deirdra.Funcheon@BrowardPalmBeach.com






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