BAY CITY, Texas — Days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25, workers at the South Texas Project nuclear power plant ensured the backup generators had fuel in case the power went out.
The Austin American-Statesman reports they obtained enough food and supplies to board the 250-person storm crew for three days. They cleared the site of any potential “missiles,” equipment that might be picked up by the wind and hurled at the two reactors.
But they didn’t prepare for Harvey — which made a slow, drenching loop around the plant near Bay City — to keep them sequestered at the site for nine days.
“We went from, ‘We’re going to be here for a couple days,’ to, ‘Guys, we need to start thinking like we’re going to be here for a week on an island,'” said Mike Schaefer, the plant’s general manager. “I remember saying, ‘Not only are we running a power plant, we’re running a hotel and a restaurant.'”
High winds never became an issue at the site, but the plant had to stick to its emergency procedures because the prolonged evacuation in Matagorda County kept other workers far from home and because the Colorado River, which is two miles away, was forecast to crest almost a week after the storm hit.
Nuclear safety watchdogs, who had called for the reactors to be shut down before Harvey arrived, maintained afterward that the plant, which is partly owned by Austin Energy, should have prioritized safety over production. Officials say that there was never a threat to public safety and that they would have shut down if wind speeds or flood levels reached certain thresholds in their emergency plans.
While stuck at the plant, workers had more basic concerns, and they drew up a new chain of command on a white board to address them. A chemistry supervisor became the clothing czar. The security manager became the food czar. The engineering manager became the bunking czar, in charge of cots, sleeping bags and pillows.
Most employees worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off. Some made emergency grocery runs through flooding streets to H-E-B and Walmart, which opened just for them despite the mandatory evacuation order. They slept in a large room called the cable raceway, through which bundled wires carry the electricity generated at the plant to the forest of transmission towers outside.
In the end, floodwaters never reached the site, the plant stayed open, and the reactors continued operating at 100 percent production levels throughout the storm and the week that followed.
Karen Hadden, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, or SEED, said that the risk wasn’t worth keeping the plant running. Although winds topped off at 40 mph — well below the 73 mph trigger for a shutdown — tornadoes touched down just miles from the site.
“South Texas Project nuclear reactors, 90 miles south of Houston, could have shut down to ensure our health and safety, but instead played radioactive roulette. They prioritized profit and continued operating,” Hadden said in a statement. “Flooding in Houston and throughout the region was disastrous enough. Many roads were closed. Picture a nuclear disaster on top of that.”
Although the concrete walls of the reactors are built to sustain impacts from projectiles traveling up to 300 mph, plants often shut down for less dangerous winds to ensure that workers can safely move around the site.
As Hurricane Irma barreled toward Florida in early September, Florida Power & Light initially planned to shut down two nuclear power plants on the Atlantic coast. But after the storm changed course, it only closed one of two reactors at one of the plants, Turkey Point, and left the other, St. Lucie, open.
Tim Powell, the South Texas Project’s chief nuclear officer, said that decisions on when to shut down because of weather, which are made by the reactor operators on duty, are dictated by the site’s storm plans.
“We operate through our procedures at all times, so there was never any reason for us to shut down,” Powell said. “If we had ever met any of the criteria . we would have shut the units down.”
He noted that officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were on site for the duration of the storm.
Critics of the South Texas plant’s decision to stay open have pointed to a report on Hurricane Harvey by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s grid, that said there was sufficient power on the grid during the emergency.
“Despite the foregoing storm-related outages, ERCOT has had plenty of generation to meet total system demand and expects to have sufficient generation for the foreseeable future,” the report said.
During the storm, ERCOT requested that two non-nuclear plants stay open to shore up vulnerable parts of the grid, but not the South Texas Project, the report said.
“It wasn’t necessary to operate those reactors in terms of dire need for that power,” said Paul Gunter, director of the advocacy group Beyond Nuclear’s Reactor Oversight Project. “There was ample power from areas that were not in harm’s way.”
ERCOT spokeswoman Robbie Searcy said that while she cannot comment on what would have happened if the plant went offline during the storm, the state’s two nuclear plants — the South Texas Project and the Luminant-owned Comanche Peak facility southwest of Fort Worth — are two of the most important producers on the grid.
“Those (reactors) are two of the larger units in the system and are fundamental to how we manage the system,” Searcy said.
The South Texas Project produces 2,700 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 2 million Texas homes and businesses, and accounts for 22 percent of the carbon-free electricity on the Texas grid.
Austin Energy owns 16 percent of the plant, which began operating in 1988. CPS Energy, San Antonio’s public power utility, owns 40 percent, and NRG, a private firm that owns Reliant, has a 44 percent stake.
Austin’s cut of the plant’s production last year accounted for 25 percent of the utility’s customer demand but only 5 percent, or $22 million, of its $439 million budget for electricity production costs. (Nuclear plants have enormous construction costs but produce energy at relatively affordable rates once built.)
Austin Energy spokeswoman Lauren Hammond said the South Texas Project was “designed with multiple, redundant safety systems and meets all required safety standards.”
“Like other power plants, STP is a key part of Texas’ electric system and is expected to be available provided it can operate safely,” Hammond wrote in an email.
Three days after Harvey hit, the workers on the storm crew were nearing the end of the clean clothes they brought with them, growing tired of ham-and-cheese sandwiches, and wondering when they would be able to return to their homes, some of which were damaged by the storm.
A turning point for morale came in the form of pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage, the first hot meal prepared after the runs to Walmart and H-E-B.
“We started out with basically cold-cut sandwiches, and after a couple days we thought, ‘We need some comfort food,'” said Powell, the chief nuclear officer. “That really lifted morale up because you can only eat sandwiches so many days in a row.”
The next task was setting up a laundry service, which they did by contracting with a business in El Campo more than an hour away, and establishing a system for keeping track of everyone’s clothes.
Schaefer, the general manager, said the improvised transition to a plant-hotel was made easier by the number of workers with military backgrounds. Many of the nuclear operators, for instance, were in the Navy, and some security officers served in the Army or Marines.
“It dawned on me that we have a lot of people out here who are former military,” he said. “Essentially what we were doing is we were setting up a base or a ship.”
The next time severe weather heads in the direction of the plant, Schaefer said, they will prepare for the disaster to last longer than is forecast and will try to improve communication with workers on the storm crew as the emergency unfolds.
Every storm is unique, Powell said, and each offers lessons to the nuclear industry.
“This was just such a weird storm,” Powell said. “It hung around for so long and rained so much.”
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Austin American-Statesman