Securing Florida's Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant

Terry Jones, the man in charge of Turkey Point, strides the nuclear power plant with the air of a captain walking the deck of a warship.

That's fitting, because Jones is a former naval officer and Turkey Point is girded for battle.

A small private army patrols the grounds. Each guard, clad in black body armor, totes an automatic weapon and is trained to drill holes in targets -- or torsos -- at long range through darkness, fog or smoke.

Bulletproof towers, painted gray, occupy strategic positions to scan the perimeter or lay down crossfire. The plant, east of Florida City and along the mangrove shoreline of Biscayne Bay, is ringed with barricades to stop vehicles and fencing to snare invaders.

''Should the bad guys penetrate our outside perimeter, they're going to encounter considerable resistance,'' Jones said. ``We're kind of running them through a maze here where the security forces can pick them off.''


Florida Power & Light executives insist that the likelihood of a terrorist assault, let alone a successful one, is almost nonexistent. The same holds for other dire scenarios, from accidents to equipment failures that critics warn could produce radioactive clouds from reactor meltdowns or spent-fuel pool leaks.

They are confident that Turkey Point and FPL's St. Lucie County nuclear plant are prepared to prevent the unimaginable from happening.

In June, for example, a transformer connected to reactor No. 4 burst into flames at 3:15 in the morning, the first big accident in years at Turkey Point, the state's oldest nuclear plant.

Ironically, the fire wasn't caused by aging equipment that critics questioned in 2002 before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved extending Turkey Point's operating license until 2033.

The fire was sparked by a design flaw in the new transformer that spewed mineral oil, an internal coolant. The blaze was snuffed in 28 minutes, and the reactor in a giant containment building was never threatened.

While the accident was serious and costly -- shutting down the reactor for 21 days to replace and check equipment -- Jones sees it as a real-world test of the plant's safety and security systems.

''This is the first time we've ever had a transformer fire in 20 years,'' he said.

Turkey Point has reported few operating problems since the late 1980s, when it was on the NRC's ''problem plant'' list for four years after a string of troubles -- from security lapses to equipment failures.

In 1990, FPL spent nearly $240 million on upgrades, and until last summer's fire, the plant had a stellar record, even weathering the brunt of Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In 1997, the NRC named it one of the two safest nuclear plants in the nation.


Regulators are currently weighing a safety violation over the capacity of reactor cooling pumps at Turkey Point, but NRC spokesman Roger Hannah described it as a relatively minor technical issue, and FPL is disputing it.

''When it comes to nuclear energy, our primary concern is safety,'' said Jones, FPL's site vice president. He pointed to an array of reactor controls in a training room, all equipped with multiple backups.

''Our engineering basis is redundancy,'' he added.

The record is less sterling at St. Lucie, which was issued seven NRC violations between 1996 and 1999 for a variety of equipment, operating and security problems.

Given that reactors run on uranium, material used in weapons of mass destruction, security has always been heavy. It has clearly been strengthened since Sept. 11, 2001, but FPL won't say much.

''Not unlike the military, it's really on a need-to-know basis,'' Jones said. ``As much as we'd like to tell the public about all our gear, it's not appropriate.''

Beyond visible defenses, there are explosive, metal and motion detectors, along with undescribed and unseen sensing systems. To enter a zone where there is radioactive material requires handprint scans and passage through heavy stainless steel turnstiles monitored by armed guards.

All of that doesn't reassure some groups that argue that nuclear plants will only become more attractive targets as spent-fuel stockpiles grow.

Mark Oncavage, a member of the Sierra Club in Miami-Dade County and longtime foe of nuclear power, argued that FPL brushed aside many potential problems when Turkey Point was relicensed in 2002. He questioned the structural integrity of the aging steel and concrete reactor towers and whether security could repel an aerial or water assault by a large force.

Jones is confident that Turkey Point can handle itself. Earlier this year, in a periodic test, the NRC staged a mock terrorist attack at the plant.

''The [raid] is a very robust and intense test,'' Jones said. ``We basically gave them our playbook, and our forces won easily.''

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