Is St. Lucie next on the antinuclear movement target list?

By Rod Adams

The most informative paragraph in a lengthy article titled Cooling tubes at FPL St. Lucie nuke plant show significant wear published in the Saturday, February 22, 2014, edition of the Tampa Bay Times is buried after the 33rd paragraph:

In answers to questions from the Tampa Bay Times, the NRC said the plant has no safety issues and operates within established guidelines. That includes holding up under “postulated accident conditions.”

Unfortunately, that statement comes after a number of paragraphs intended to cause fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the minds of Floridians about the safety of one of the state’s largest sources of electricity. St. Lucie is not only a major source of electricity, but it is also one of the few power plants in the state that is not dependent on the tenuous supply of natural gas that fuels about 60 percent of Florida’s electrical generation.

In March 2013, at the height of the political battle about the continued operation of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station—a battle that ended with the decision to retire both of San Onofre’s units—Southern California Edison issued a press release that contained words of warning for the rest of the nuclear industry.

The Nuclear Energy Institute’s Scott Peterson called the Friends of the Earth claims “ideological rhetoric from activists who move from plant to plant with the goal of shutting them down.” He goes on to say: “Not providing proper context for these statements incorrectly changes the meaning and intent of engineering and industry practices cited in the report, and it misleads the public and policymakers.”

In San Onofre’s case, the context of the public discussion should have included a widespread understanding that the decision to shut down the plant was based on a single steam generator tube leak that was calculated to be one-half of the allowable operating limit. That leak was detected by an alarm on a radiation sensing device sensitive enough to alarm with a leak that might have exposed someone to a maximum of 5.2 x 10-5 millirem.

The antinuclear movement has a long history of using steam generator material conditions as a way to force nuclear plants to shut down. Most nuclear energy professionals will freely admit that the devices have been problematic since the beginning of the industry. There was a period of acrimonious litigation when the utilities sued the vendors because the devices did not last as long as initially expected. However, with an extensive replacement program, focused research, attention to detailed operating procedures, and material improvements, steam generators are more reliable today than they were 25 or even 15 years ago.

It is also worth understanding that steam generator leaks do not cause a public health issue. Operating history shows that essentially all of the leaks have been modest in size and resulted in tiny releases of radioactive material outside of the plant boundaries. U-tubes are part of the primary coolant boundary and are thus classified as “safety-related.” Their integrity is important to reliable plant operation, but the 30 percent of the plants operating in the United States that are boiling water reactors don’t even try to keep radioactive coolant out of the steam plant.

The Tampa Bay Times feature article, written by Ivan Penn, included quotes from some of the same players involved in the—unfortunately—successful effort to close down San Onofre. Their words have that familiar ring of “ideological rhetoric,” indicating that St. Lucie might be high on the target list for the activists who move from plant to plant.

Arnie Gundersen, who Penn correctly identified as a frequent nuclear critic, provided a fairly explicit quote supporting the guess that the antinuclear movement has selected its next campaign victim. “St. Lucie is the outlier of all the active plants.” Later in the article, he stated that St. Lucie’s steam generators have a hundred times as many “dents” as the industry average. That might be true, but that is mainly because the industry average is in the single digits. The important measure is not the number of wear spots, but their depth.

Daniel Hirsch, described as a “nuclear policy lecturer” from the University of California at Santa Cruz, used more colorful language, “The damn thing is grinding down. They must be terrified internally. They’ve got steam generators that are now just falling apart.” Like Gundersen, Hirsch has fought against nuclear energy for several decades.

David Lochbaum, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, indicated that he thought that the plant owners were gambling, even though their engineering analysis, which was supported by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, indicates that the plant has no safety issues and is operating within its design parameters.

Those quotes from the usual suspects, spread throughout the article, are balanced by quotes explaining or supporting FPL’s selected course of action to continue operating and to continue conducting frequent inspections to ensure that conditions do not approach limits that would require additional action.

Here is an example from Michael Waldron, a spokesman for FPL, that appears near the end of the article:

“We have very detailed, sophisticated engineering analysis that allow us to predict the rate of wear, and we are actually seeing the rate of wear slow significantly.”

Even though it is balanced with an almost equal number of pro and con quotes, Ivan Penn’s article includes a number of phrases that appear to be carefully selected to increase public uncertainty and worry about St. Lucie’s continued operation. It is possible to also attribute the words to the author’s desire to add drama and emotion to attract additional readers; that can be difficult to do while maintaining accuracy. Unfortunately for people who love drama, nuclear power plants are quite boring. The vast majority of the time they simply keep working.

Here is an example of the type of rhetorical enhancement that frustrates people who value the accurate use of words:

Worst case: A tube bursts and spews radioactive fluid. That’s what happened at the San Onofre plant in California two years ago.

As stated above, the tube at San Onofre did not “burst” and it did not “spew” radioactive fluid. A tube developed a small, 75–85 gallon-per-day leak from the primary system into the secondary steam system. The installed equipment provided an immediate indication of a problem and the operators promptly took a very conservative course of action to shut down the plant.

While the responsible engineers were performing their detailed investigations and drafting their recommendations, the activists and the politicians took charge of the public communications and worked hard to ensure that San Onofre never restarted. Their focused misinformation offensive resulted in the early retirement of an emission-free power plant that reliably provided 2200 MW of electricity at a key node in the California power grid.

Today, local residents in California are not safer, the air is not cleaner, and the wholesale price of power has already increased by more than 50 percent. Several large-scale infrastructure investments are being planned to restore resiliency to California’s grid. The primary beneficiaries of the antinuclear actions are the people who sell the 300–400 million cubic feet of natural gas needed every day to make up for the loss of San Onofre.

Let’s hope that the regulators and the politicians do a better job of finding sound technical advice, and that the responsible experts do a better job of helping people to understand that St. Lucie is safe, even if its steam generator tubes have more wear marks than anyone wants.

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Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

10 thoughts on “Is St. Lucie next on the antinuclear movement target list?

  1. Aaron Rizzio

    It would be a useful exercise to examine the reasons for the industry’s dramatic cost projection escalations of new NPPs between 2004-5 and 2008-9, a factor of 3-4 increase; I have still not gotten a satisfactory answer. One component would be the huge rise in the cost of materials & labor as reported by IHS CERA, driven largely by the PRC. But material and labor inputs represent a fraction of the cost of a NPP. As Per Petersen of UC Berkley has noted the raw material inputs of a modern Gen III+ NPP (basically steel & concrete) are less than a comparable modern coal or pro rata wind turbine project. A 3000-person workforce each averaging $150k/yr over 5 years (a generous estimate) would account for less than 1/3 of the cost of say Plant Vogtle’s estimated ~$7k per kW. Absurd on its face. The cost of capital is low as is the inflation rate. Why wouldn’t these costs decrease with the global economic contraction of 2008? They are still running 200% of what they were in 2000-5, last time I checked.

    Another factor to consider is the life-cycle cost benefit analysis of new NPPs vs the ~35% share of coal burning electricity generation that the EIA projects through 2030, even within a persistent low gas price regime scenario. Coal is by far the most carbon intense form of electric generation and it also shortens the life of ~7500 US residents/yr according to the 2014 Clean Air Task Force update; a dramatic reduction from the 24,000 deaths/yr in their 2004 study, driven by the recent dash to gas and retirement of the oldest and least efficient coal units grandfathered in under the 1970 Clean Air Act. 7500 deaths per year still represents a cost of >$50 billion/yr according to EPA’s standard “value of a statistical life” accounting. The life saving value of a NPP fleet of 200GW(e) of added units displacing all coal steam generation by 2030 and running for a nominal 40-yr operating license period would be valued @$10,000 per kW(e), apart from the actual value of the electricity generated. This would also be in addition to whatever value assigned to AGW mitigation (~2 billion tons/yr >1/3 US total CO2 emissions/yr, 80 billion tons over 40 yrs >EIA projection of 2030 annual CO2 emissions under BAU scenario).

  2. Rod Adams


    Please note that I said “dire economic predictions.” I’m not talking about safety at all.

    In no particular order, here are some costly economic tragedies with high total cost per unit of electricity produced – Shoreham, Zion, Ft. St. Vrain, Trojan, TMI unit 2, Crystal River, San Onofre 2&3, Kewaunee, CC3, STP 3&4, Levy County. Shoreham, at $6 billion spent and no electricity produced was the biggest tragedy of all, but TMI unit 2 came pretty darned close, with exactly one year between initial criticality and destruction.

    The list goes on. It is painful to think about and the issues are complex but nuclear professionals cannot improve our performance if we fail to recognize the lessons from the past.

  3. Eric

    @Rod: “The challenge we face is that, so far, the nuclear energy opponents have successfully been able to make many of their dire economic predictions about our technology come true.” They have? Which dire predictions have come true? Nuclear is one of the safest utility based industries I know of. Granted, I don’t know everything, but more people have died in car accidents in America in the last 50 years than in nuclear power in the whole world. Even that doesn’t express the ridiculously low injury/death rate from accidents in the states. It’s more accurate to say this kind of rhetoric/ideology is baseless than it is to say nuclear is dangerous.

    Here’s a dire prediction that’s coming true, the electricity production that must replace the nuclear plants they want to shut down can only come from coal and, arguably, natural gas. How’s that for a step in the wrong direction.

  4. Rod Adams

    The challenge we face is that, so far, the nuclear energy opponents have successfully been able to make many of their dire economic predictions about our technology come true.

    What can we do to change that, given our current philosophy that we must do everything in our power to achieve perfection, no matter how much it costs?

  5. Mitch

    If he really meant it, Obama could help boost nuclear power in the country with his pen and a phone call.

  6. Ed Leaver

    You may be right, Atomikwabbit, but the article you linked also illustrates Meredith’s point: Mr. Penn comes across as fairly objective in this case. Cost is a dilemma, and Mr. Bradford is right: these things are upfront pricey, which the no-nukes activists have thus far been pretty successful at exploiting. Mr. Penn carefully explained Florida is currently 60% invested in natural gas, then left hanging Mr. Bradford’s suggestion regarding nuclear that we “Build something else.”

    Well, we’ve still plenty of coal. Mr. Bradford is very right that Florida utilities will not approach nuclear without substantial risk-sharing with their customers, same as EDF wouldn’t touch U.K. without loan guarantees. Its a matter of good faith, which of course works both ways: utilities are leery of building 5+ billion dollar plants only to have activists prevent them from starting, while Floridians are rightfully irked at being asked to foot the bill for e.g. cost-cutting gone awry at Crystal River. No-nukes activists would have us take the easy way out and abandon nuclear. But they haven’t yet formulated a viable alternative that both provides energy security and avoids catastrophic climate change. The Florida legislature faces an unenviable dilemma.

  7. Mitch

    Never heard a reporter say a windmill failed or keep killing lots of birds or ruin the seashore or countryside views! Why can’t reporters be as careful describing nuclear things as they being PC friendly with greens and celebs and athletes and pols they respect?

  8. Meredith Angwin

    Great post, Rod.

    I have always wondered why a SG tube breakage is considered a release to the environment, when it is a release to the secondary water. The secondary water dilutes any problem, and the secondary water is not released to the environment…it recirculates. That secondary water is very clean and monitored very closely. It would be WAY too expensive to allow it to be released to the environment!

    Slow growth of well-monitored tube “indications” means that things are under control, not out of control.

    I think the reporter was trying to do a good job and did a good job in many ways: lots of tables and diagrams. The usual suspects said the usual things, but you would expect that. The underlying problem is unconscious bias. For example, that “spewing” word…that is the word they always use. In that case, the reporter was just being business-as-usual. The word is inaccurate, but used all the time.

    Let me give you an example. I wrote an op-ed for my local paper, and it contained the phrase ” the plant recently…” The editor at the newspaper edited it, and suddenly it read: “the troubled plant recently.”

    Of course, she corrected it as soon as I mentioned that that was not my phrasing, and it was not published that way. I am just pointing out that she thought she was using generally acceptable phrasing to shorten the sentence by adding “troubled plant” instead of some of the things I said later. This was unconscious bias.

    I think it is worth pointing these things out to reporters and editors, because they are trying to do a good job. They are not out to sabotage us (in most cases, at least). But they have unconscious biases, and these come out in the article.

    Relationships with reporters must be nurtured, in my opinion, with mutual respect. Some reporters do not deserve this respect, but most of them do.

  9. James Greenidge

    “…Worst case: A tube bursts and spews radioactive fluid. That’s what happened at the San Onofre plant in California two years ago…”

    The damning thing is that anti-nuclear assertions and claims NEVER have to be accurate or truthful to deliver their desired effect. Fact or lie the stain always lingers, even when “retracted”. The onus is on the nuclear community to always be on the de-FUD offense with constant nuclear awareness education even during non-incident times.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

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