If you aren't anti-nuclear by disposition (or education) and weren't around to witness the intimidation of federal inspectors, explosive construction faux pas, and wild cost-overruns that marked the birth of the South Texas Project's twin reactors back in the 1980s, it's conceivable you may not have one negative thing to say about the plant.
After only a few years online, the twin reactors (left) were putting out huge amounts of power. In 1994, Units 1 and 2 landed at the top of a list for the most nuclear-generated electricity produced in any six-month period. Unit 2 churned out 5.7 billion kilowatt hours in that period; Unit 1 kicked out 5.68 kilowatt hours.
After thousands of complaints, a ream of violations from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and clocking in more than five times over budget when the units finally came online in 1988 and 1989, it was just the sort of performance the plant needed to display if it wanted to regain the public trust.
As operators at the Matagorda plant celebrate their 20-year anniversary, they are also celebrating five years of continued record-breaking levels of electricity generation.
From a February, 2009 press release:
The reactors ranked ninth and eleventh, respectively, of the 439 units worldwide in production.
“The outstanding dedication and performance of our employees, coupled with careful planning and execution, continue to keep our plant at the top of the industry,” said Ed Halpin, STP Chief Nuclear Officer. “We are extremely proud of this accomplishment, and it speaks to the culture that we've collectively built at STP.”
While there have been documented releases of minor amounts of radiation â?? some of which has begun to turn up in ditches just outside the plant's perimeter â?? there's been nothing like the millions of gallons of tritium-laced water spilled out of Exelon's plants in Illinois.
When I toured the plant earlier this week, I found reactor operators big on their game.
“Because we have improved efficiencies and better calculations, we're able to run closer to the limit,” an operator in the control room told me. In fact, Unit 2 was expected to run over 100 percent this year if it didn't have to be shut down for refueling this fall.
Refreshingly, employees also didn't shrink from their past performance problems.
“I can remember 10 years ago when I would drive in I would look to see if the units had tripped. I'd always look for steam billowing,” said Paul Burton (above right), secondary reactor operator. “Now, I don't ever look at that because we're always running. It's just amazing.
The reliability we're at now is just incredible.”
Opposition to the plant in San Antonio has run the gamut: from high water use, to the unresolved challenge of nuclear waste, and fear of terrorist attack.
But the plant can't easily be challenged on its power-production performance. And while STP is vastly superior over Comanche Peak in terms of how water is used, it is still far more water dependent than the counter proposals from the anti-nuclear lobby demanding CPS instead pursue a mix of renewable technologies and natural gas.
I spoke with STP spokesperson Buddy Eller at length on the topic of water use. You can see some highlights from that dialogue in the video segment up top.