1. Business

Southern Alliance seeks public review before St. Lucie nuclear plant returns to service

Published Mar. 11, 2014

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy filed a petition Monday to block a St. Lucie nuclear reactor from returning to service until the public vets unusual wear inside the plant's steam generators.

In a complaint to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Southern Alliance accused the NRC of allowing unit two of the St. Lucie nuclear complex to operate outside of its license.

The Southern Alliance argued that plant owner Florida Power & Light omitted components without formal NRC approval, contributing to premature steam generator tube wear.

"We are troubled that the NRC is allowing FPL to operate unit two essentially in an experimental state due to the significant modifications that have occurred with the steam generator replacements," said Stephen Smith, Southern Alliance's executive director.

Michael Waldron, an FPL spokesman, dismissed the group's claims as just part of an "antinuclear" agenda.

"This petition is not about the safety of St. Lucie," he said. "It's a transparent attempt by an out-of-state, antinuclear group to advance a political agenda."

The NRC has emphasized that the premature tube wear poses no impending safety issues. "There is no steam generator safety problem, nor tube integrity safety concerns, at St. Lucie," Joey Ledford, an NRC spokesman has said about the issue.

Last month, the Tampa Bay Times reported that St. Lucie's steam generator tubes had sustained more than 11,000 dents and worn spots, far more wear than nearly every other plant with new steam generators.

Two reactors in San Onofre, Calif., that suffered premature tube wear were permanently closed last year. A tube leaked at one of the reactors, and it became too time consuming and ultimately too costly to bring the reactors back online.

The NRC and FPL said the two cases should not be compared.

"The steam generators at San Onofre are a different design, made by different manufacturers and operated at higher power levels than those at St. Lucie," Waldron said.

FPL took the St. Lucie reactor offline last week for routine refueling and to inspect the tubes. The reactor is expected to return to service in early April.

The Southern Alliance, based in Knoxville, Tenn., is one of the organizations, along with the state Office of Public Counsel, the Florida Industrial Powers Users Group and the Florida Retail Federation, that routinely argues cases against utilities before the Public Service Commission.

Before St. Lucie returns to service, the Southern Alliance wants the NRC to hold public hearings.

As part of the organization's petition, nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen stated St. Lucie 2's steam generator tubes developed the unusual wear because of four actions FPL took without formal NRC approval:

• FPL in 2007 used a design that did not include what are called "stay cylinders" in the new St. Lucie 2 steam generators, which provide support for the tube sheet that secures the tubes.

• In place of the stay cylinders, the utility added 588 more tubes to the steam generators to bolster the plant's power, increasing the heat at the center of the steam generators and causing more tube vibration.

• FPL weakened the tube sheet by punching additional holes in it for the additional tubes.

• Finally, FPL changed the tube support design in the new steam generators.

Gundersen, often a critic of nuclear power operators, said that FPL pitched the steam generator replacement as a "like-for-like" replacement, which does not require a license amendment from the NRC nor any public hearings. The new steam generators are significantly different from the old ones, he argued.

"To them, it's like Clydesdales and camels: They both have four legs, so it's like-for-like," Gundersen said.

Waldron said the Southern Alliance is simply campaigning against nuclear with little regard for anything else.

"The suggestion," Waldron said, "that somehow FPL did not follow the very rigorous and strict federal processes for the steam generator replacement in 2007 is ludicrous."