In Hurricane Irma’s path: 2 Florida nuclear plants

With Hurricane Irma churning through the Caribbean and wiping out entire towns along the way, officials at Florida Power & Light’s two nuclear plants at Turkey Point and St. Lucie are watching the storm closely and considering whether they should shut down the reactors. The storm is expected to reach Florida on Saturday.

Peter Robbins, a spokesman for FPL, said shutting down a reactor is a gradual process, and the decision will be made “well in advance” of the Category 5 storm making landfall.

“If we anticipate there will be direct impacts on either facility, we’ll shut down the units,” Robbins told the Miami Herald. “Based on the current track, we would expect severe weather in Florida starting Saturday, meaning we would potentially shut down before that point.”

Because the plants sit along the Atlantic coast, they are potentially exposed to the strongest winds and storm surges of hurricanes.  Despite the locations, Robbins says, “both plants are equally protected.”

Robbins said the Turkey Point plant’s reactors are encased in six feet of steel-reinforced concrete and sit 20 feet above sea level. Turkey Point has backup generators, extra fuel, and, as a backup to the backup, replacement parts and materials to be flown in from Tennessee.

The St. Lucie plant has the same protections and can withstand severe flooding from storm surges. The nuclear plant has already survived Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2005 and Wilma the year after, Robbins noted.

“For the top of the plant to be underwater … if there were flooding on the plant, we could absolutely stay safe,” Robbins told reporters. “We designed the plant to handle that [sort of storm], the systems at the plant can handle that.”

The last time a major hurricane hit the Turkey Point plant, the nuclear reactors along the southern Biscayne Bay were left unscathed. The plant also experienced a Category 5 strike from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which caused damage.

When the eye of Andrew passed over Turkey Point, which is the state’s oldest nuclear plant, some facilities around the reactor’s buildings were affected, taking on $90 million in damage, including to systems that were supposed to be hurricane-proof.

One of the 400-foot smokestacks for the old oil-burning power plant was cracked in half, even though it was rated to survive 235-mph winds. Andrew blew down all but six of the 41 warning sirens within 10 miles of the plant. The storm left the plant running on backup generators for more than a week to cool the shut-down reactor, and a main access road was blocked by debris.

“It handled Andrew as it was designed to,” Robbins said. “It’s one of the safest and most robust structures in the state, if not the country.”

Below is a video showing Irma’s massive strength:

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