After the Turkey Point nuclear plant underwent three unplanned shutdowns last month, a five-person team of inspectors with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are on site investigating at the facility outside Florida City.
Yesterday, the NRC announced it had begun a "special inspection" of Turkey Point that's expected to take one week. But residents will have to wait far longer for answers: The results won't be made public until 45 days after the agency completes the inspection. That means mid-October, at the earliest.
Because of that, details about the shutdowns remain fuzzy, though NRC spokesperson Roger Hannah tells New Times there is no indication of a public safety threat at this time.
"None of the [shutdowns] resulted in conditions that would have compromised safety for employees or people in the area of the plant," Hannah writes in an email.
But watchdogs say that both the number of shutdowns at Turkey Point and the announcement of a special inspection by the NRC are unusual. Edwin Lyman, a nuclear-safety expert at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, says the NRC typically only performs a few special inspections each year.
"It's premature to say anything but, again, the NRC doesn't use this tool very often," he tells New Times. "Especially now, when the pandemic is really impacting their ability to do on-site inspections and they're probably more reluctant to increase the travel of their staff unless there's a really good reason, I do think this does single out the possibility that there are issues they're concerned about and they want to look for them. There's no reason to panic, but it's a sign they're taking this seriously."
Unbelievable. Operators had to scram the Turkey Point Unit 3 #nuclear reactor in #Florida for a THIRD time this week as they tried to restart it yesterday. It had reached 34 percent power when the last operable steam generator feed pump failed. Earth to @NRCgov: Do something! pic.twitter.com/i9oX0Wgff6— Edwin Lyman (@NucSafetyUCS) August 21, 2020
Turkey Point, which dates back to the early 1970s, is owned by Florida Power & Light (FPL) and generates enough power for more than 900,000 homes, according to the energy company. But the aging reactors have long been a concern for environmentalists, who sued FPL after it was discovered the plant had been leaking polluted water into Biscayne Bay.
Several operational incidents at the plant have also led to public concern. In 2009, FPL was fined $130,000 after guards at Turkey Point were caught sleeping on the job. Earlier this summer, the Sun Sentinel reported that three maintenance workers were fired for falsifying records in January 2019 stating that they had inspected equipment when they had not.
Lyman points to the 2019 incident as all the more reason the NRC should be keeping a close eye on Turkey Point.
"Is there a safety-conscious work environment where workers are encouraged to do the right thing and managers are encouraging them to stick to the rules?" he asks rhetorically. "The NRC did identify some pretty systemic issues with valves and how they're being tested."
Two days later, the plant automatically shut down the reactor for a second time. The final scram occurred on August 20.
Peter Robbins, a spokesperson for FPL's parent company, NextEra Energy, tells New Times that "there was never an emergency."
"In all three cases, the plant was shut down in a controlled and deliberate manner, and all safety systems responded normally," he says in a statement. "The initial shutdown was to conduct a repair on the non-nuclear section of the power plant, and the additional shutdowns happened as we determined that additional work and repairs were needed."
Although scrams are an unpleasant reality in the world of nuclear power, Lyman says nuclear plants that have more than three shutdowns in a year can be subject to stricter NRC scrutiny.
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"It is unusual to have three events like that in an entire year, much less in a week or four days," the Union of Concerned Scientists expert says. "There's the possibility it's just a coincidence, or a question of whether there are some underlying issues at the plant that are leading to equipment failures and other problems. Hopefully, the inspection will get at that."
Hannah, the NRC spokesperson, says the agency's report later this fall will reveal whether any violations were found.
"The inspection team is reviewing exactly what happened, how the operators responded, corrective actions the company has taken or plans to take, and how the company and operators may have applied training as well as any previous industry operating experience," Hannah writes in an email.