Way down where East Palm Drive cuts through the mangroves lining southern Biscayne Bay, Florida Power & Light is ramping up one of South Florida’s largest construction projects — a $1 billion upgrade of the nuclear power plant at Turkey Point.
It’s got nothing to do with FPL’s controversial plan to add two new reactors to the site. This work is all part of an “up rating’’ that will allow the utility to coax more power from its current two reactors, amounting to a massive overhaul of the four-decade-old facility.
All the major systems outside the reactor building are being updated or replaced — transformers, heat exchangers, pumps, valves, condensers, steam pipes and twin 1-million horsepower generators that are the size of school buses. Combined, they make up most of what nuclear engineers call the “secondary plant.’’
Michael Kiley, FPL’s site vice president, said the project will improve the plant’s safety, reliability and efficiency,
“It’s going to be virtually a brand new secondary plant that will produce 15 percent more electricity,’’ he said during a Turkey Point media tour last week.
Though FPL won’t be able to amp up the power until it receives final approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and completes the overhaul sometime next year, the work is already generating economic ripple effects.
The normal work force of about 800 FPL employees has swelled with another 3,200 contractors over the last year, a number expected to peak at around 5,000 workers by the end of January. Many workers are from outside South Florida but they’re renting homes and apartments, shopping and eating out, said Mary Finlan, executive director of the Greater Homestead/Florida City Chamber of Commerce.
“There is an enormous impact,’’ she said. “A couple of our Realtors are up to their eyeballs in requests to find housing, and the restaurants are noticing it big time.’’
Like anything to do with nuclear power, the project, being bankrolled by a controversial rate increase approved in October by state regulators, has drawn some questions.
For environmentalists, the big one is whether it will worsen an underground plume of salty water that has pushed miles inland and threatens drinking water wells in South Miami-Dade.
Earlier this month, the NRC issued a draft assessment finding no “significant’’ environmental impacts but also noting the upgrade would raise water temperatures, salinity levels and evaporation rates in the plant’s 168 miles of cooling canals. A study two years ago by federal geologists suggested the massive canal system — a nine-square-mile network that looks like a radiator in satellite images — has already created heavy, hot, “hyper-saline’’ water that sinks and spreads into the Biscayne Aquifer below.
FPL has disputed that its canals are exacerbating the problem. But in 2009, after a year of negotiations with state environmental regulators and water managers, the company agreed to expand ground-water monitoring to determine whether the cooling system is driving the briny plume farther inland.
South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, an outspoken foe of a FPL’s still-uncertain plans to double the number of reactors at the site, said he was glad to see the utility replace aging equipment but also questions whether the higher temperatures and pressures will put additional stress on older systems inside the reactor building.
“In terms of safety, I think it’s pretty neutral,’’ said Stoddard, a biology professor at Florida International University.
Kiley, Turkey Point’s site manager, said the utility’s rigorous routine of inspecting, maintaining and replacing reactor equipment would ensure safe operations. Many of the nation’s nuclear plants have already safely completed similar projects, he said.
“It’s not the age of a plant, it’s how you maintain it,’’ Kiley said.
The NRC expects to complete its review of the up rate by next spring, said agency spokesman Joey Ledford.
The Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, has already signed off on it In October, the PSC also unanimously agreed to allow FPL to hike consumers’ bills — $2.20 every month for a household using a typical 1,000 kilowatts — under a state “cost recovery’’ statute allowing utilities to recoup investments on nuclear power plants.
Critics, including the PSC’s Office of Public Counsel, have questioned the law, saying it allows utilities to spend money on planning, designing and licensing plants that might never get built.
But Michael Waldron, FPL’s director of nuclear communications, defended the charge, saying 90 percent of the funding will go to up-rating projects at Turkey Point and at a second plant in St. Lucie County. The work, he said, will ultimately save FPL customers nearly $5 billion — the difference between the cost of nuclear fuel pellets and buying far more expensive fossil fuels.
Once completed, he said, the up ratings at the two South Florida nuclear plans would produce the same amount of additional power annually as 6 million barrels of oil.
With the site buzzing with trucks, cranes and contractors, the projects also raise security concerns. In 2006, an unsupervised contractor drilled a hole in a pipe as payback over a pay dispute, triggering a federal investigation that cost FPL $6.2 million in lost revenues until repairs were done.
Kiley said the entire industry has significantly beefed up its background checks in the years since that incident, with workers undergoing complete federal background and psychological tests. In addition, FPL has expanded its security force by 10 percent and designated “contractor coordinators,’’ FPL employees who supervise and check on all work.
“The contractors aren’t just roaming free anymore,’’ said Kiley.
Much of the work now going on is really just setting the stage for the heavy lifting that will occur when FPL will shut down Turkey Point’s reactors, one at a time in the spring and fall, for refueling. That process, which typically takes about three months for each reactor, will allow workers to complete the work.Until then, Turkey Point will remain part construction site, part nuclear power plant. The place fairly hums with the sound of trucks, cranes and hand tools.
“When the rest of the state is in an economic recession, this area has been booming,’’ said Kiley.
Source: Miami Herald