ST. LUCIE COUNTY — In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that caused one of the world's worst radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan one year ago today, Florida Power & Light Co. said it has spent nearly a million dollars on additional equipment designed to prevent such a disaster at its St. Lucie nuclear plants.
FPL immediately began ordering the safety inspections, analysis and creation of its own command center to oversee the work before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its own request to the nation's nuclear power plants for immediate safety inspections, the utility said.
"Safety is always what we look at first and when this happened, we were jumping to make sure our equipment works and that we are ready for an emergency," said FPL spokesman Doug Andrews. "We immediately created a command center to improve our overall readiness," he said.
Expenditures for safety enhancements during the year turned out to be right on the money, anticipating what the NRC was going to ask the country's nuclear plants to do.
"Since then, we have spent about $800,000 on additional backup diesel generators, high capacity water pumps, which are sometimes called 'water cannons,' and communications equipment upgrades," Andrews said.
On Friday afternoon, the NRC issued the first three of nine new orders designed to enhance safety at the 104 nuclear power plants at 65 sites in 31 states. All together, the plants produce 20 percent of the nation's electrical power.
Five of the reactors are in Florida — four owned by FPL at Turkey Point and South Hutchinson Island, and one at Crystal River on the western side of the state owned by Progress Energy.
"The key lesson from what happened in Japan is that we must be able to deal with the loss of power, and that it could be for a long time," said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy-making industry organization that counts all the nuclear plants among its members.
For plants, this means adding even more diesel-powered generators as backups and even adding battery power to run generators if the diesel fuel runs out, he said.
When power fails, the ability to cool reactors with water and keep spent fuel cool underwater fails as well. Explosions can result — as they did at Fukushima Dai-ichi a year ago, sparking an effort in the United States to enhance nuclear plant safety.
"With all deliberate speed the plants are asked to comply with these orders," NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said. "Many plants have already started, and some have already completed the required tasks."
They have until Dec. 31, 2016 to comply.
Two of the three orders apply to the St. Lucie plants. Andrews said FPL already has a good head start on both.
One requires all of the nation's plants to be sure they can operate during prolonged power outages. The other requires the installation of additional monitoring equipment to make sure water levels are high enough in the spent fuel pool. The third order applies to a different type of plant construction.
The NRC also is requiring all plants to assess the ability of their communications systems and equipment to perform under extreme conditions with prolonged power loss and to determine whether they have the staff to fill emergency positions in the event of a disaster.
Andrews said FPL has done that.
"We formed a full-time event response team from the core team of our command center and we're upgrading our communications equipment," he said.
FPL also has upgraded its operator training program to include lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster.
Since Fukushima, the St. Lucie plant alone has spent 5,300 man-hours making sure all equipment functions properly and is accessible in an emergency situation, that the best procedures are followed and that emergency training covers everything necessary for extreme situations, Andrews said.
The NRC's orders, Ledford said, are designed to make sure that all nuclear power plants in the United States are prepared for disaster situations that are beyond what they were designed to handle.
Andrews said that although the plants in St. Lucie County were built in 1976 and 1983 and design standards have changed over the years, their 3-foot-thick walls woven with iron reinforcing rods are up to today's design standards for extreme situations.
"We are in an area of low seismic activity, so earthquakes and tsunamis are not likely to be an issue for us," he said. "We do have hurricanes in our area, but our plant is built to successfully withstand a direct hit from a category 5 hurricane, which Turkey Point did from Hurricane Andrew."
In Fukushima, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011 caused three reactors to shut down and knocked out electrical power. An hour later, a tsunami took out the emergency diesel generators that were stored in the plant's basement. During the next few days, radioactive material was released into the