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FPL gets overhauled nuclear reactor online at Turkey Point

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 4’s 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 O’Hare, head of the maintenance programs department at Turkey Point. “But where I work, in the outage control center, people were cheering pretty good. We’ve been wanting this for a while.”

It was a milestone moment, the symbolic culmination of Florida Power & Light Company’s 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 4’s 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.

“It’s similar to NASA delaying a shuttle launch,” O’Hare said. “We also have to go through very rigid steps at a nuclear power plant.”

With FPL’s three other overhauled nuclear units already online and running with no major glitches, Turkey Point’s 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,” O’Hare 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.

FPL’s 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.

“It’s really the equivalent of building a new small power plant,” said Mike Kiley, Turkey Point’s 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. That’s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s equivalent of removing about five million cars from the road.

FPL’s 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.

FPL estimates it will save more than $100 million a year in fossil fuel costs.

FPL first asked state and federal utility regulators for permission to do the uprate project in 2007, after its bid to build a “clean” coal-fired plant was twice rejected.

It has been a major undertaking, using the brainpower of more than 1,000 engineers and requiring more than 22 million man hours, mostly from highly skilled workers.

“That’s more man hours than it took to build the tallest building in the world, in Dubai,” Kiley said.

Construction began about three years ago at Turkey Point, two miles east of Homestead in far South Miami-Dade. A dinosaur statue marks the entrance to the 3,300-acre facility, which also includes a natural gas combined cycle unit and two fossil fuel units to make Turkey Point the country’s sixth largest electricity-producing plant.

During construction, the workforce at its twin nuclear units climbed from 800 to more than 5,000 — with people working 12-hour shifts, six days a week, often in high temperatures and shirt-soaking humidity.

About 6,000 components were replaced or upgraded, including pipes, valves, wires, rotors, fans, generators and turbines. Many of the components look like super-sized versions of familiar car and house parts.

The project also required a $10 million, 592,000-pound transformer, shipped from Austria. And it was just a spare.

Turkey Point no longer is the chaotic beehive of activity that it has been for the past three years. The large cranes are now gone. Most of the scaffolding and the spaghetti of temporary wires also have been removed. The completion checklist is down to items such as painting and insulating pipes.

On the way to the control room earlier this week, Kiley stopped a moment to point out the vibrating concrete floor. It was from the turbine that spins at 1,800 revolutions per minute, just part of the process to create electricity from uranium fuel that arrives as harmless pellets about the size of a small eraser.

“One pellet is equal in BTUs to one ton of coal,” he said. (A British thermal unit is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit).

Chris Trent, a control room supervisor at Turkey Point, was not even born when Unit 4 was originally constructed in 1973. Today, there are many redundant systems in place to prevent failure and maintain safety. He also goes through training every six weeks, as is the case with the other 67 licensed control room operators at Turkey Point.

The upgrade project has been challenging. It initially was expected to cost $1.5 billion in 2007, but the bill has ended up double, primarily due to complexity that could not be determined until the engineering was completed.

After so many long days, Kiley said, everyone was eager for Unit 4 to be synched to the grid. But the expected startup date was delayed a few days as engineers fine-tuned the air pressure around the generator to make sure that when it is run at 100 percent there is adequate cooling. While frustrating, the delays are routine, Kiley said.

Once Unit 3 first was connected to the grid after its overhaul, it took three months of testing to get it running at 100 percent capacity. With all the lessons learned, Unit 4, its identical twin, is expected to take only one month.

“We want to be at 100 percent power before the summer hits for the customers,” Kiley said. “That’s when they need the electricity the most.”

Next for Turkey Point is building two new nuclear units. The plant currently is in the process of trying to obtain state and federal permits.