Officials investigate cause of transformer fire at McGuire Nuclear Station

By: Mark Becker , Ken Lemon

Updated:

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. - Officials are working to identify the cause of a transformer fire that happened early Wednesday morning at the McGuire Nuclear Station in Huntersville.

[PHOTOS: Emergency crews on scene of fire at McGuire Nuclear Station]

Video shot by Channel 9 sports anchor Phil Orban as he drove by the station on Highway 73 just before 9 a.m. showed huge plumes of black smoke as well as flames.

The Huntersville Fire Department tweeted that its crews were at the scene and that the fire was confined to a transformer building in a switchyard across the street from the actual plant.

They assisted Duke Energy and laid down foam to cool the transformer. Both of the department's tankers, as well as a tanker from the East Lincoln Fire Department, responded to the scene.

Fire officials said there were no evacuations and that there was no need for the public to be concerned. Motorists were urged to avoid the area because of traffic issues along Highway 73.

The fire was extinguished before 10 a.m.

While neighbors couldn't see or hear the fire, they did hear the fire trucks, and many told Eyewitness News that they were concerned.

Several people live within a half-mile of the entrance to the plant and the substation that caught fire. They rarely think about the fact that they live so close to such a powerful force until something happens, and were grateful that authorities were able to get the flames under control so fast.

Resident Terry Turbyfill said he couldn’t see the fire over the trees from the backyard of his home, but it was hard to miss as he drove on Highway 73.

"The transformer burning was right across the river," Turbyfill said. "I could see the flames and all jumping up over the trees."

Turbyfill told Channel 9 that he knows there are safety precautions for incidents like the fire.

“But it was still scary to see that much smoke and flames coming from one little area,” Turbyfill said.

Jessica Brown lives in the same neighborhood as Turbyfill and works at a nearby store.

"People were driving by telling me there were big black billows of smoke going up into the air," Brown said.

Brown didn’t see the fire until Channel 9 reporter Ken Lemon showed her a video of the smoke and flames.

"It’s so close to the house," Brown said. "It’s scary. It’s scary. I mean, I don’t know their protocol or anything, but that’s a big plant."

Neighbors said that most everyone in the area knows to listen for sirens from the plant, which signal for people within 10 miles that there is a problem. According to residents, the sirens did not sound on Wednesday.

Resident Vinny Pickao said he heard fire trucks and saw video of the fire online. Only a grove of trees separates his subdivision and the substation.

"I just think terrorism, or, God forbid, anybody that would do something to impact the reactor,” Pickao said.

Residents told Channel 9 that they what to know what caused that fire, and want to be assured that it won't happen again and that it won't impact the plant that powers the region from their small community.

"Yeah, it was a little scary because Duke Power land is all in our backyard," neighbor Terry Simmons said. "I just want to make sure it's safe, because we're so close to the plant."

The residents Channel 9 spoke with said they didn’t evacuate the area Wednesday, and they only change their routines if the plant sirens go off.

From Chopper 9 Skyzoom, charred equipment and foam could be seen on the ground, with fire personnel all around.

An official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Channel 9 that the fire happened at a switchyard about a mile from the actual nuclear plant, and that there was no operational impact to the plant's two units.

The McGuire Nuclear Station is a nuclear power plant located on Lake Norman, a 32,500-acre lake created in 1963 by Duke Power for the Cowans Ford Hydroelectric Station. The McGuire units use the lake's water for cooling.

Earlier this year, Channel 9 was taken on an exclusive tour of the McGuire Nuclear Station, which generates enough energy to power two cities the size of Charlotte.

[READ MORE: Duke Energy gives Channel 9 tour of McGuire Nuclear Station]

The vital area of the facility, which contains generators that produce power, steam lines and turbines, is designed to withstand earthquakes, flooding and even the impact of a crash by a small aircraft.

The plant also has extensive security measures throughout and employees train regularly for threats and fires.

(Click PLAY to watch viewer video)

Christine Pulley, a spokeswoman for the nuclear facility, told Channel 9 they don't know what started the fire but there was no one in the transformer yard when it began. By that point, officials said, workers were unable to reach the faulty transformer to determine its issue.

“We are going to be working, of course, to find out the root cause, how the incident actually occurred,” she said. “We will be doing our best and getting our employees to work on the situation to fix whatever happened over at the switchyard.”

Pulley said officials believe the fire was caused by an equipment failure.

"We don't know exactly what actually caused the fire, other than we do know there was some type of equipment failure," Pulley said.

Pulley said they did not have to shut down or evacuate the nuclear plant and there was no threat to any of the neighborhoods nearby.

Duke Energy officials said that the company reported the fire to the NRC, and Wednesday afternoon, a spokesman told Channel 9 that they don't expect to investigate further since the fire didn't pose a threat to the plant or community.

McGuire officials said it will be until at least Thursday before engineers can investigate what caused the fire.

Check back with wsoctv.com for updates on this story.

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