Station Fire, Failure Cause Fla. Power Outage, Close Nuke Plant

February 27, 2008

Millions of Floridians sweated. Restaurant owners tossed out their food. Motorists battled each other even more than usual. And all for something that should have been just a blip on the electrical grid.

An equipment malfunction in a substation near Miami on Tuesday started a domino effect that power officials had stopped but were still struggling to understand by late afternoon.

The relatively minor problem somehow caused two power distribution lines to be disabled between Miami and Daytona Beach. In response, Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point nuclear plant south of Miami stopped operating around 1 p.m., Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Kenneth Clark said.

The result was aggravation and confusion across south and central Florida. Gerson Anzueto said AM radio stations were down when he tried to figure out what was going on, and it wasn’t until his daughter called him a half hour later from Guatemala that he got some information.

“How is that she had more information in Guatemala than I did?” said Anzueto, who works at a Miami restaurant. He scrambled to swipe patrons’ credit cards to make the most of his register’s 15 minutes of battery life.

Looking out at the street, Anzueto said he was shocked that many drivers failed to obey basic traffic laws, such as stopping at an intersection where lights weren’t working. “People weren’t acting responsibly,” he said.

Up to 3 million people – about a fifth of Florida’s population – lost power at various points during the afternoon, though there were no safety concerns at the nuclear plant. And while many areas were hit hard, the outages were short lived and only about 20,000 people lacked electricity during the evening commute home. Most of the evening outages were due to bad weather, not the grid problem, officials said.

Florida Power & Light was trying to determine what caused the equipment failure and a fire at the substation, but the company said it was not the kind of problem that should have created the widespread blackouts.

Grid problems caused both Turkey Point reactors to shut down, said the utility’s nuclear spokesman, Dick Winn.

“All the safety systems worked just like they were supposed to and both of those units are in stable condition right now,” he said. Clark, of the NRC, agreed the plant’s safety was not in question.

The outages had no connection to terrorism, Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Laura Keehner said. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez said the outages were technical, not criminal.

“It’s a matter of just a cascading effect,” he said.

Florida emergency management officials said the outages cut power to 2 million to 3 million people during the heat of a day that saw temperatures reach the 80s.

The federal nuclear commission said based on reports from its resident inspectors at the plant, the initial drop in voltage came from outside Turkey Point, but the problem worsened when the two reactors shut down, the panel said.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has responsibility for electricity grid reliability, said it wants to know whether there were any violations of federal grid reliability rules.

The sporadic outages spanned 300 miles of the peninsula but appeared to be concentrated in the southeast portion of the state, including Miami. Communities along the southwest coast, in the Florida Keys and as far north as Daytona Beach reported interruptions.

“We lost a lot of money today,” said Frances Cruz, manager of CiCi’s Pizza in Port Orange near Daytona Beach. The restaurant lost power during the lunch rush and had to throw away prepared food including pizza, salad, pasta and desserts.

At a Starbucks in Miami’s western suburb of Doral, employees began handing out sandwiches they feared would go bad.

Nelson Suarez, 35, a manager for Asia sales at World Fuel Services, enjoyed the free lunch.

“I can’t work anyway since all the power is out, so at least something good came out of this,” he said.

Miami International Airport, the Port of Miami and the area’s rail and bus transportation were working normally, although some places briefly relied on generator power, officials said. Several Miami-area hospitals switched to backup generators when the power went out.

By 2 p.m., most of northern downtown Miami appeared to be back to normal operation. In the Florida Keys, spokesman Andy Newman said areas were without power for about 30 minutes.

Bob Wild, a sports marketing consultant who lives in Miami’s southern Kendall neighborhood, said he didn’t even notice the outage, thanks to his home’s generator.

“We’re a hurricane family. We’ve been though Hurricane Andrew and everything before and since,” he said. “Our daughter called us from Washington and said she’d seen the blackouts on TV. That’s when we found out.”

Associated Press Writers Suzette Laboy, Damian Grass and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami, Travis Reed in Orlando, Brian Skoloff in Juno Beach, Mitch Stacy in Tampa and H. Josef Hebert in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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