Gulf Coast Nuclear Plants at Risk From BP Oil Spill

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courtesy of nadbasher, Wikimedia Commons
Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant

Watchdog groups are warning about the BP oil spill’s potential damage to Gulf and Atlantic coast nuclear power plants that use seawater to cool pumps and other safety equipment.

Earlier this month, representatives of the nuclear watchdog groups Beyond Nuclear, Three Mile Island Alert and Unplug Salem wrote a letter to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission seeking details on oil plume monitoring efforts to guard against damage to plants’ safety systems. The letter was copied to the Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

They have not received an official reply to date, reports TMIA safety consultant Scott Portzline.

“But that’s not unusual,” he says. “We don’t usually hear back from the NRC on anything for at least a month.”

The watchdogs wrote to the NRC on June 14 asking for assurances that federal and state agencies are coordinating efforts to prevent safety problems at coastal nuclear power plants. While seawater is not used to cool the reactors themselves, it’s used in the plants’ secondary cooling systems. There are concerns that contamination could damage those systems.

The letter asked for details about monitoring of the subsurface oil plumes and what plants are doing to protect themselves from the oil, chemical dispersant and dissolved methane.

Among the nuclear plants that could be impacted by the oil slick is Progress Energy’s Crystal River plant on Florida’s Gulf Coast (pictured above). There are also concerns about Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point and St. Lucie nuclear plants on south Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

A May 12 situation report from the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability acknowledged the potential for problems.

“If water supply for these facilities becomes contaminated with oil, cooling water systems could be damaged,” it said.

Last month Progress Energy announced that it was monitoring the oil slick and had a boom system for its seawater intake canals at Crystal River, which is currently shut down for repair work.

“If the oil approaches our plants,” the company said, “we will work with our oil spill-response contractor to augment the existing protective measures.”

FPL has also said it’s monitoring the situation.

There are concerns about the oil spill impacts on the region’s coal-fired power plants as well.

At Southern Co.’s James F. Crist coal plant in northwest Florida, workers have placed boom at the spot where the plant draws water from the Escambia River, which flows into oil-contaminated Pensacola Bay. The company is also monitoring the situation at its Jack Watson coal plant near Gulfport, Miss.

There’s a precedent for shutting down nuclear power plants due to oil spills: In 2004, the Salem nuclear power plant at Lower Alloways Creek, N.J. was shut down for two weeks after an oil tanker spilled 165,000 gallons of crude oil near Philadelphia.

In that case, Coast Guard officials did not have the phone number for the nuclear plant. Instead, they called the chair of the Unplug Salem group at home in the the middle of the night.

“We would like to be certain that no one is caught off guard,” the watchdogs’ said in their letter to the NRC.

Sue Sturgis is an investigative reporter and editorial director of Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, where this story first appeared.

(Photo of Crystal River nuclear plant by Edibobb via Wikimedia Commons.)