Control-room alerts repeatedly rang out at Florida Power and Light's Turkey Point nuclear plant near Homestead as a reactor underwent three unplanned shutdowns during a four-day period this past August. FPL struggled to get the reactor back online; at one point inexperienced operators ramped up the power rate so quickly that a safety system kicked in and killed the process.
A special inspection by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has since blamed the shutdowns on faulty equipment and lapses in training. (The NRC's inspection report is embedded at the bottom of this story.)
Though the nuclear power plant averted disaster, industry watchdogs question why so many things went wrong at Turkey Point in such a short span of time — and whether the feds let FPL off with a slap on the wrist.
The scrutiny comes as FPL battles in court to keep its license renewal for the plant. FPL's licenses for Turkey Point were extended in 2019, marking the first time the NRC has approved a nuclear power plant to operate continuously for 80 years.
Now nearly 50 years old, Turkey Point's Unit 3 and 4 reactors are cleared to operate through the year 2050. Power companies across the U.S. are looking to follow suit and secure an extension of their own nuclear-plant licenses.
In a statement to New Times, FPL said that the Unit 3 reactor "shut down as designed" this past August. The company said there was "never an emergency at the power plant, nor was there any impact to the safety of our employees or the public."
"We have taken this situation seriously," FPL said. "Because nothing we do is more important than the safe operation of our plant, we have already begun taking steps to address the NRC's feedback as part of the regulatory process."
But Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear-power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells New Times that he believes the unplanned shutdowns — known as "scrams" — are being downplayed by FPL.
Lyman says he was taken aback by the disarray at the plant and the mismanagement of the reactor startup on August 19. He contends that the federal inspection report minimizes the significance of the scrams. The report found six safety violations but categorized them as being of low concern — a "green" rating under NRC standards.
"There were multiple failures in all different areas, across the board. You had equipment failures, improper maintenance, serious operator errors, and gaps in procedures," Lyman says. "To just say these are 'green' findings is not commensurate with the severity of this situation."
"Each time you have an unplanned shutdown, you are challenging the system, and there is the opportunity for something else to go wrong," he adds.
According to the NRC's inspection report, a water-damaged switch in the Unit 3 reactor's steam generator system led to the first shutdown.
The broken switch caused a valve to open incorrectly on August 17. Water levels rose out of control in the steam generator over a three-minute period, in part because the plant had not been programmed to handle such a breakdown, according to the report.
A shift manager wound up shutting down the reactor manually.
Among other violations, the NRC noted that FPL did not properly program the plant back in 2012 when the company was redesigning the facility so it could increase the plant's production. (The multibillion-dollar project aimed to increase power output at Turkey Point by 15 percent.) The agency noted that "inadequate setup and tuning" of valves during the 2012 plant overhaul contributed to the 2020 malfunction.
FPL has been cooperating with the investigation and disclosed the programming error to the NRC inspectors, according to the report.
Plant employees who attempted to get the Unit 3 reactor back online on August 19 lacked the training to safely carry out the startup, according to the NRC report.
Management had unwittingly paired two staffers who had never performed that kind of operation. The plant managers also failed to ensure that the operating crew had the necessary simulator training on the afternoon before the startup, according to the report.
The startup involved carefully pulling out control rods — the devices that limit nuclear fission in the reactor. According to the NRC, the staffers pulled out the rods too quickly, sending the reactor's power levels barreling upward.
The NRC wrote that "no member of the operating crew, nor any of the observers" noticed that the startup rate was too high.
One of the nuclear instrument channels that was monitoring the startup was broken, which may have contributed to confusion in the control room, the NRC noted. The channel had not been repaired before the August events despite having been "inoperable since at least April 2020," according to the report.
The plant had multiple monitors in place, so a duplicate channel detected the reactor's excessive power increase. An automated safety system then stopped the startup process.
In the final scram, the plant staff shut down the Unit 3 reactor after they lost the use of a steamwater generator pump.
The shutdown occurred on August 20 during another reactor startup attempt.
A controller in the steamwater generator system was in manual mode when it should have been in automatic, according to the inspection report. When plant staff attempted to rectify the situation, suction pressure dropped on the pump in question, causing it to trip.
In evaluating this final scram, the NRC again pointed to FPL's plant redesign in 2012. FPL at that time "did not revise the plant procedures" to ensure that staff would have the steamwater generator in the correct configuration during future startups, the NRC stated.
Inspecting the inspection
By all accounts, the events at Turkey Point last August were unusual. Globally, nuclear power plants experience on average one unplanned scram every two to three years, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The NRC did not cite Turkey Point for poor performance, despite the power plant's three unplanned shutdowns in close succession. That's because it takes 25 unplanned shutdowns in an operating year to reach the NRC's "unacceptable performance" rating. A plant has to exceed an average of three unplanned shutdowns in a year to even trigger a performance downgrade.
Since 2018, the NRC has issued far fewer safety findings above the baseline "green" rating than in years past.
From 2006 to 2017, the number of nuclear plants that received inspection findings with a severity level above green ranged from six to 18 annually on the NRC's end-of-year summaries.
That figure dropped to nearly zero in the years after President Donald Trump appointed Kristine Svinicki to serve as the NRC's chairman in 2017. In the 2019 year-end summary, for example, the NRC listed no inspection findings beyond the "green" severity level.
Lyman, the nuclear watchdog with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the rosy ratings are the result of a watered-down review system — not a pristine safety record at U.S. nuclear plants.
"There has been great inflation, especially over the last few years, where it is much harder to raise the safety violation level to anything higher than a 'green' finding," Lyman says. "The bar is too high for how many cross-cutting issues [the regulators] have to find before they determine there is a systematic problem."
Lyman says the green rating given to Turkey Point is "totally off-base." He points to the August 19 startup, when staff raised the reactor power by a factor of thousands in less than a minute — well beyond the safe startup rate, he says.
"If you have an uncontrolled increase in power, you can get such high temperatures that you can cause fuel damage. Just think about stepping on a gas pedal without looking as you're pulling out of a driveway," Lyman says.
Anna Erickson, a leading engineer at Georgia Tech's Laboratory for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Safety, disagreed with that dire assessment. She tells New Times that the events at Turkey Point do not raise major safety concerns.
"Safety-grade equipment has enough redundancy where one equipment failure does not necessarily lead to the possibility of an accident," she says.
According to Erickson, the reactor's safety mechanisms "performed as intended" and "did not allow for human error to create a state of instability." She says the NRC performed an exhaustive analysis of the shutdowns.
"The NRC is the gold standard of regulatory commissions around the world because of how hard they can be on the companies. They do not let issues go easily," Erickson says.
Erickson describes a startup as one of the most intense and stressful parts of a reactor's operation.
"It's like an airplane with takeoff and landing. Things move fast, and there are a lot of steps to keep track of. I can understand why the second shutdown happened. It doesn't excuse the operators' apparent miscommunication. But it's not an easy process," she says.
Svinicki, the NRC chair, announced on January 4 that she would be stepping down from the agency.
Reached by New Times, the NRC maintained that it did not significantly change the way it inspects nuclear plants during Svinicki's tenure as chairman. The agency added that the "vast majority of operating U.S. reactors have maintained their performance at levels requiring only the basic level of NRC oversight, which still involves thousands of hours of inspection activities."
The future of Turkey Point
The unplanned shutdowns at Turkey Point are unlikely to prompt the NRC to re-evaluate its decision to extend the plant's licenses to operate through 2050.
Nevertheless, environmental groups including Miami Waterkeeper, Friends of the Earth, and the National Resources Defense Council are challenging Turkey Point's license extension in a Washington, D.C., appeals court.
The D.C. case does not involve the August shutdowns. Apart from procedural arguments, it's centered on whether the NRC issued the license extension without adequately reviewing groundwater impacts from Turkey Point's saltwater-laden cooling canals. The canals are undergoing a large-scale remediation project amid controversy over hyper-saline water leaking into the Biscayne Aquifer.
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