At 23, STP marks being youngest nuclear plant in US

For seven consecutive years, STP's facility has produced more energy than any other two-unit nuclear facility in the nation.

Concerns and fears over the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear power plants have grown because of the incident at the Fukushima Daiiachi nuclear plant in Japan.

Half of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors are more than 30 years old, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The South Texas Project is the most recent nuclear power plant in the nation at 23 years old. Plant officials have taken steps to make sure STP's two units operate safely for the life expectancy of the plant.

"There's constant ongoing maintenance and testing of all parts and components at our facility," said Buddy Eller, director of communications and public affairs for South Texas Project.

STP focuses on safety and maintenance of the plant with independent oversight from the NRC in an ongoing basis, Eller said.

With every nuclear power facility, there is redundancy built into the design and construction to ensure that they operate safely and reliably, he said.

According to Eller, to maintain the South Texas Project, management has a comprehensive and ongoing equipment reliability program at the facility, which helps ensure that every part and component operates as designed.

"We are constantly monitoring our facility to ensure that we maintain it in excellent operating condition," he said. "Whenever there is an issue with a part or component, it is repaired or replaced. In addition, we have redundancy and backup systems throughout the facility."

Parts like pumps, valves, reactor vessel heads and steam generators have been replaced at STP.

Nuclear power plants spent $6.5 billion in 2009 replacing parts and equipment for modifications, he said.

STP will invest $90 million in maintenance and equipment by the end 2011; this includes two planned refueling outages.

Each nuclear power plant in the United States has onsite NRC personnel to provide independent oversight on an ongoing basis, ensuring that all plants are operating safely, Eller said.

The two units at STP produce 2,700 megawatts of electricity and have been in operation since 1988 and 1989. Combined, they provide energy to more than 2 million Texas homes. For seven consecutive years, STP's facility has produced more energy than any other two-unit nuclear facility in the nation.

On planned refueling outages, which are scheduled 18 months apart for each unit, maintenance scope is built into the outage, he said.

"Our focus is to ensure that all equipment is operating as designed," he said.

The lifespan of a nuclear power plant is about 60 years. STP has about 40 years of operation left.

To continue producing energy after its 40-year license, nuclear power plant officials recently submitted a license renewal application to the NRC for a 20-year extension of operation for units 1 and 2.

Also, plans for STP include construction of two additional units.

Safety is a core value at STP and employees focus on it day in and day out, Eller said. "We will always put safety over production."

Late last year, Unit 2 was shut down after a failed breaker caused an automatic shutdown in response to a non-safety equipment failure.

The unit was taken offline to take the necessary actions and make the repairs, he said.

"While our facility is state-of-the-art, it is machinery. An analogy would be like maintaining an automobile," he said.

"A power plant is going to age with time, and like a car, we maintain and change the parts to keep it in safe, reliable, operating condition," he said.

After a nuclear power plant has reached its lifespan of 60 years, Eller said each plant has a decommission fund. The fund is based on how long the plant has been in operation and its age.

"This is where we decommission the plant and return the site to a greenfield condition," he said.

As part of STP's renewal application for relicensing of units 1 and 2, NRC officials will be onsite for two weeks. While onsite, they will complete a comprehensive audit of all equipment at the facility.