At 1:54 p.m. Wednesday, inside the high-security control room at Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant, reactor operator Dave Bell turned the switch that closed Unit 4s primary breaker in the switchyard. In microseconds, electricity began to flow into the main power grid.
Nobody in the control room hugged or burst into applause like rocket scientists would during shuttle launches.
They are very stoic, all about business, said Kevin OHare, head of the maintenance programs department at Turkey Point. But where I work, in the outage control center, people were cheering pretty good. Weve been wanting this for a while.
It was a milestone moment, the symbolic culmination of Florida Power & Light Companys complex $3 billion project to squeeze nearly 15 percent more electricity out of four of its nuclear reactors two at Turkey Point and two at its St. Lucie plant.
Unit 4s connection to the grid was delayed about a week as time-consuming adjustments were made to ensure the unit would operate efficiently and safely at maximum reactor power.
Its similar to NASA delaying a shuttle launch, OHare said. We also have to go through very rigid steps at a nuclear power plant.
With FPLs three other overhauled nuclear units already online and running with no major glitches, Turkey Points nuclear control room operators delivered more of a collective sigh of relief as they watched the output numbers slowly rise on the Unit 4 digital megawatt meter, from 001 to 008.
The reactor will run at 8 percent capacity until it passes all the tests at that level. They will slowly raise it to another plateau and then stop and do a whole bunch of testing, OHare said. The process is repeated several times. It will take about a month for the reactor to run at 100 percent. Units usually stay online about 18 months until they are shut down for routine refueling.
FPLs modernization and uprate project the largest of its kind in the United States enables the four units to collectively produce about 525 additional megawatts of clean energy, enough to power approximately 312,000 homes.
Its really the equivalent of building a new small power plant, said Mike Kiley, Turkey Points nuclear site vice president.
FPL saved time and money by going the uprate route. New nuclear units now cost about $9 billion and take six years to build, Kiley said.
Over the next 20 years, the additional clean energy FPL produces will allow it to reduce use of fossil fuels, thus cutting its carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 32 million tons, according to FPL. Thats the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencys equivalent of removing about five million cars from the road.
FPLs 4.5 million customers already have paid more than 10 percent of the multibillion-dollar price tag through the controversial advanced nuclear cost recovery fees charged in their monthly bills. For a typical residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours, the rate is $1.65 per month this year, down from $2.20 per month in 2012. The rate is expected to drop to less than 50 cents per month in 2014, according to FPL.
While the infrastructure for a nuclear plant is expensive, in the long run the energy produced is more cost efficient. Uranium fuel is relatively cheap compared to natural gas or oil or coal, Kiley said.