The officially dubbed "oil leak" that shut down the Shearon Harris nuclear plant over the weekend was no mere trickle but a geyser that drenched surrounding equipment and coagulated into a pool on the floor.
About 7,000 gallons gushed out of the plant's main generator's oil seal system, draining half of the system's pressurized lubricant, according to Progress Energy, the company that owns the power plant.
The accident serves as a reminder of the sheer industrial scale of a nuclear power complex that generates 900 megawatts of power and employs 600 people. Within five minutes of the mishap, Shearon Harris operators shut down the nuclear reactor at 10:42 p.m. Sunday night and embarked an industrial cleanup that has continued until this afternoon.
Several dozen workers are cleaning up the spill at the nuclear plant located about 25 miles southwest of Raleigh.
"An operator was manipulating the valve when the valve handle came flying out," said Joey Ledford, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "They've got a lot of people in there cleaning up oil."
The NRC, which oversees nuclear plant safety for the nation's 104 commercial reactors, said the oil spill posed no public hazard and did not affect the reactor itself. Raleigh-based Progress, the majority owner of the Shearon Harris plant, shut down the reactor because the plant wasn't able to produce electricity with the generator out of commission.
An NRC event report described the incident as a "large oil leak."
Ledford said the oil streamed out like a punctured artery and coated equipment in the generator room. Progress has already replaced a pump motor that was damaged by oil spray, he said.
There's still no word on when Progress expects to resume generating electricity at the plant as operators tackle the gooey mess.
"It's an oil spill at a nuclear plant, it's not out of a lawnmower," said Progress spokesman Mike Hughes. "A spill like this takes a lot of cleanup."