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Inside The STP During Hurricane Harvey Was No Picnic

Photo via Dave Fehling

One important thing about a nuclear power plant is that it has to be manned and maintained 24-7 -- no matter what - even when there’s a hurricane....especially when there's a hurricane. And as the South Texas Project (STP) storm crew discovered, being sequestered with the reactors for a full week is no picnic. 

Getting into the South Texas Project nuclear reactor building is no joke. The building, with its two giant concrete domes, is surrounded by fencing, block barriers and rows of razor wire. The process to get inside the facility was as thorough and no nonsense as the times I’ve visited Death Row.

And leaving the facility also involved a security screening, checking to see if I had become radioactive.

"3-2-1-clean," I was pronounced after a full body screen.

It’s this attention to detail in security that you would expect at a nuclear power plant that’s generating enough electricity every day for two million homes.

STP is in Matagorda County and is just ten miles from the coastline. What happens when a hurricane hits?

“It was quite an experience – it was one that I won’t forget anytime soon,” said Buddy Eller, the director of external communications for the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Company.

He and 250 other STP employees remained at the STP during the hurricane.

They had prepared for severe weather, but Hurricane Harvey was more than they had trained for.

“We generally plan for storms to last two to three days. This one lasted well over a week,” he said. 

The nuclear operators, engineers, and security personnel began a monster work shift on Friday August 25th that didn't end until Friday September 1st.  The crew members worked rotating 12-hour shifts for a full week. Cots were set up for sleeping quarters. A laundry service was created. And the workers needed to be fed. And there was only one item on the menu.

“Everybody is going to eat sandwiches,” said Jay Bodnar, the STP Security Manager. These were ham sandwiches that were all made in advance during the storm prep.

“Breakfast – lunch and dinner,” said Bodnar.

And on day three of the storm shift it looked like something needed to be done. The roads around the nuclear power plant were starting the flood and it became clear they were going to be stuck in the plant for a few more days.

“And we were really tired of eating these sandwiches,” he said.

They decided to go on a food run.
Bodnar mounted an operation with a team and a large truck they headed off to the closest HEB. They contacted the store which had just closed in the evacuation.

“We took these tubes of ground beef – every bit that they had,” he said.

Next they had to get back to the nuclear power plant and now the flooding was getting worse.

“A lot of rain – a lot of wind at that time. There was a lot of water coming up on the sides of the roads. Driving in that box truck – we had it weighted down – we were trying to do that cautiously,” said Bodnar.

Once back at the STP the tubes of ground beef became welcomed hot meals of spaghetti and meatballs and hamburgers.

Mike Schaeffer the STP General Manager said the meals were served in the plant’s Gator Café which also was an employee down time gathering spot.

“We had plenty of time for people to talk and share stories,” he said.

And this is where workers came to get the latest news about the Harvey and its destructive force. The wall was posted with a hurricane tracking map, charts and the latest weather updates. Like the rest of Texas they were watching and worried about their homes and loved ones.

“Hats off to the National Weather Service. Their clarity helped us insure that we were able to assess the situation with the plant and be able to make the right decision what to do with the plant and the people who were here,” said Schaeffer.

But the Hurricane season does end until November 30th and Schaeffer says he’s keeping his cot in his office set up until then.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi