Some question decision to keep Texas nuclear plant open during Harvey
MATAGORDA COUNTY — Days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, workers at the South Texas Project nuclear power plant ensured the backup generators had fuel in case the power went out. They obtained enough food and supplies to board the 250-person storm crew for three days. They cleared the site of any potential “missiles,” equipment that might be picked up by the wind and hurled at the two reactors.
But they didn’t prepare for Harvey — which made a slow, drenching loop around the plant near Bay City — to keep them sequestered at the site for nine days.
“We went from, ‘We’re going to be here for a couple days,’ to, ‘Guys, we need to start thinking like we’re going to be here for a week on an island,’” said Mike Schaefer, the plant’s general manager. “I remember saying, ‘Not only are we running a power plant, we’re running a hotel and a restaurant.’”
High winds never became an issue at the site, but the plant had to stick to its emergency procedures because the prolonged evacuation in Matagorda County kept other workers far from home and because the Colorado River, which is two miles away, was forecast to crest almost a week after the storm hit.
Nuclear safety watchdogs, who had called for the reactors to be shut down before Harvey arrived, maintained afterward that the plant, which is partly owned by Austin Energy, should have prioritized safety over production. Officials say that there was never a threat to public safety and that they would have shut down if wind speeds or flood levels reached certain thresholds in their emergency plans.
While stuck at the plant, workers had more basic concerns, and they drew up a new chain of command on a white board to address them. A chemistry supervisor became the clothing czar. The security manager became the food czar. The engineering manager became the bunking czar, in charge of cots, sleeping bags and pillows.
Most employees worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off. Some made emergency grocery runs through flooding streets to H-E-B and Walmart, which opened just for them despite the mandatory evacuation order. They slept in a large room called the cable raceway, through which bundled wires carry the electricity generated at the plant to the forest of transmission towers outside.
In the end, floodwaters never reached the site, the plant stayed open, and the reactors continued operating at 100 percent production levels throughout the storm and the week that followed.
Karen Hadden, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, or SEED, said that the risk wasn’t worth keeping the plant running. Although winds topped off at 40 mph — well below the 73 mph trigger for a shutdown — tornadoes touched down just miles from the site.
“South Texas Project nuclear reactors, 90 miles south of Houston, could have shut down to ensure our health and safety, but instead played radioactive roulette. They prioritized profit and continued operating,” Hadden said in a statement. “Flooding in Houston and throughout the region was disastrous enough. Many roads were closed. Picture a nuclear disaster on top of that.”