Tugboat captain Nick Colomero pulled up to the barge landing at Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant last month with a special shipment: a $10 million, 592,000-pound transformer from Europe.
The behemoth electrical device was designed with an oddly shaped top to fit through the railroad tunnel near Weiz, Austria, where it was built by Siemens Energy. No manufacturer in the United States had the capability to construct the “extra high voltage” transformer when it was put out to bid several years ago.
The journey took 10 weeks and covered 7,200 miles by train, cargo ship and barges averaging 7 miles per hour. The route traversed the Danube River, Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Moser Channel, which runs under the Seven Mile Bridge in the Keys. Thousands of extra miles were required for a stop in Mobile, Ala., because local ports couldn’t lift the 33-foot long, 14-foot wide, 15-foot high unit, made primarily of steel and copper.
Five days were unexpectedly spent holed up in Apalachicola, riding out Tropical Storm Beryl. The last half-mile was aboard a German-machine called the Goldhofer, which looks like a caterpillar with 144 tires and features a hydraulic system to handle the 268 tons — far too heavy for most roads.
And all this for a “spare.”
“Absolutely, it was worth it,” said Cara Smith, project manager for Florida Power & Light.
The transformer is an integral part of the nuclear power plant’s $1 billion, head-to-toe makeover. Nearly 6,000 components are being replaced or upgraded: pipes, valves, generators, rotors, fans and turbines. All are important, even the backups, in the complex puzzle.
When the upgrade — the most ambitious ever attempted at a U.S. nuclear power plant — is done in spring 2013, Turkey Point’s two nuclear units will be able to produce about 15 percent more electricity, enough to power about 270,000 more residential homes in South Florida and elsewhere on the grid. This will be done using basically the same amount of uranium fuel, consisting of solid ceramic pellets that produce electricity through a process called fission. Not a drop of fuel oil or natural gas is used.
“It’s almost like building another power plant,” Smith said. “But here you are taking existing units and running them more cleanly and efficiently. And nuclear fuel costs are dirt cheap compared to natural gas or fuel oil.”
The number of additional residential homes to be powered could increase if the new spare transformer from Austria is ever called to duty to replace one of the two existing transformers. While the new transformer (1,028 mega volt amps) is rated higher than the two existing upgraded ones (now at a maximum 970 mvas), it was not practical to make the switch now due to the logistics nightmare of the overall upgrade, Smith said.
For now, the $10 million spare is a “very cheap insurance policy,” said Turkey Point’s David Sluszka, a liaison between the numerous contractors and the plant.
It would cost the plant about $1.5 million a day in fuel replacement to supply the same amount of power. The transformer took two years to build, and that was after nearly two more years of design and acquiring time-consuming permits.
Transformers are integral to any power plant because they convert the generated 22,000 volts of electricity into high voltage (230,000 volts) for cheaper and more efficient long-distance transmission through wires and poles of the grid. “Think of it like higher water pressure going through pipes,” Sluszka said.