A massive influx of jellyfish shut down the St. Lucie nuclear power plant in late August, but it is only now that nuclear regulators, wildlife officials and marine researchers are learning that the event also killed several tons of protected goliath grouper.
A spokesman with Florida Power & Light said the public was never in danger during the Aug. 22 event. The plant, which is designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, was shut down for two days because of the jellyfish invasion and to repair a leak that was discovered in another pump after the shutdown, Doug Andrews said.
Jellyfish invasions of this magnitude are rare. Biologists at the plant could recall only three other similar events in the past 30 years, Andrews said. Still, the company is changing procedures and equipment, including "increasing the robustness" of screens that catch debris and wildlife and improving wildlife monitoring "to provide for earlier warning," Andrews said.
The four-day event began Aug. 22. The plant's three intake pipes, located almost a quarter-mile offshore, began sucking in an unusually large number of moon jellyfish. Travelling through the pipes at about 4.6 mph, the jellyfishes' poisonous tentacles broke off.
Trash rakes and large, rotating metal screens that prevent debris from getting into storage tanks could not keep pace with the influx of dying and dead jellyfish and became clogged. That caused pressure to build in the pumps that keep the water flowing in the plant for cooling.
For fish trapped in the plant's intake canal, the situation became lethal. Unable to escape the canal, the poisonous tentacles attached to their gills, which became grossly swollen. Biologists from Inwater Research Group, a nonprofit that oversees the plant's turtle protection program, poured white vinegar on the gills of the giant grouper in an attempt to save them. Ten were rescued before divers were forced out of the water after they, too, were stung.
No one kept count of how many goliath grouper died or whether they carried tags from research projects, said Jonathan Gorham, vice president of Inwater. There were between 50 and 75 dead grouper, he said. A scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the weight of each grouper was estimated at up to 200 pounds.
"All the manpower that could be assembled up here was working very hard to keep the barrier nets up for sea turtle protection," Gorham said. No turtles died.
FPL is required to report when endangered species, such as sea turtles, are captured, injured or killed when they are sucked into the plant's cooling canals. However, the company is not required to report incidents involving "prohibited" species, such as the goliath grouper - prohibited from being fished in state and federal waters - and so the company made no mention of the goliath grouper deaths in reports it filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
A spokesman for the NRC said Tuesday that the commission was aware of the jellyfish invasion but knew nothing about the extent of the fish kill. FPL is currently seeking approval from the NRC to increase the amount of power it generates at the plant. In a draft report the NRC has concluded that upping the power production will not cause additional harm to the environment.
However, environmentalists say billions of fish are killed every year at U.S. nuclear plants, especially plants like St. Lucie, which constantly suck water - and marine life - into the plant rather than recirculate and reuse water like FPL's Turkey Point nuclear plant south of Miami does.
"The magnitude of the fish kills is enormous, but there is not good, accurate data," said Reed Super, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Riverkeepers, who pointed to FPL's record-keeping and reporting after the St. Lucie kill as a missed opportunity to gather data.
FWC scientists talked with FPL and Inwater Research Group on Wednesday about the data the commission would like reported even if it is not required by the law or its permit. Data collection is the mission of Chris Koenig, a researcher at Florida State University and a renowned expert on the goliath grouper. Through Koenig's research, more than 2,500 goliath grouper have been tagged, including 250 recently tagged off Jupiter.
FPL spokesman Andrews said the utility removed the fish as quickly as possible because of "concerns about the spread of bacteria and disease." He cited the company's sea turtle protection program as evidence of the company's concern for wildlife and research, adding that the company has accumulated the longest documented record of sea turtle biology in the country.
"FPL takes its responsibility to protect the environment very seriously," Andrews said. "We're just as bothered when they die as anybody."
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