As Florida Power & Light finalized plans to expand its nuclear reactors at Turkey Point three years ago, critics were aghast. The nuclear plant already stands on environmentally fragile land, and upping the power production would seriously threaten the ecosystem, they argued.
Turns out they were right. This morning, a University of Miami scientist released the results of a county-mandated study into whether Turkey Point has been leaking dangerous wastewater into Biscayne Bay. He found more than 200 times the normal levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope linked to nuclear power production, in the bay water.
“This is one of several things we were very worried about,” says South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, who is also a biological sciences professor at Florida International University. “You would have to work hard to find a worse place to put a nuclear plant, right between two national parks and subject to hurricanes and storm surge.”
The study is just the latest blow to FPL, which lost a state court ruling last month when a judge found the utility had failed to prevent hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater from seeping into the bay.
County commissioners are scrambling this morning to get answers as to how the plant could be leaking so much radiation into the protected Biscayne Bay.
“I was shocked to read this,” says Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who in a letter demanded answers from FPL “by the end of the day.” County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, meanwhile, says the county has “aggressively enforced its regulations” and would demand that the state force FPL to fix the problem.
At the heart of the troubling issue revealed in the new report is a system of canals surrounding the nuclear plant in southeast Miami-Dade. Nuclear cores must be constantly cooled to avoid meltdowns. The canals circulate water through the plant to leech heat off the reactors.
As FPL prepared to expand the plant’s reactors in 2013, critics such as Stoddard warned that relying on the canals was a mistake. For one thing, environmentalists argued, the hot, salty canal water would inevitably leak back into Biscayne Bay and the Everglades.
“They argued the canals were a closed system, but that’s not how water works in South Florida,” Stoddard says.
In the two years since, environmentalists have pointed to a growing litany of concerns, including spiking heat levels in the canals and saltwater plumes exploding from the power plant into nearby groundwater systems. Stoddard says salty water has intruded as far as four miles inland through groundwater.
But FPL resisted new monitoring, Stoddard says, and deflected blame. “FPL has argued and argued and denied and denied there was any connection to their canals,” he says. “They’ve tried to prevent monitoring. They were successful until the county commission finally demanded this study.”
FPL hasn’t returned New Times‘ phone calls for comment on the study, which was conducted by University of Miami scientist Dr. David Chin. He tracked the overflow of wastewater from the plant by monitoring levels of tritium. He found levels of the isotope up to 215 times the normal concentration in Biscayne Bay.
It’s not clear whether the isotope itself is dangerous to people or wildlife at that concentration; that’s one topic on which the commission will demand answers from FPL, Suarez says.
But the hot, salty water is certainly a problem for the delicate ecosystems in Biscayne National Park and the Everglades. Stoddard — who argues the new study might point to violations of the federal Clean Water Act — says he believes only two solutions are viable: building new cooling towers to replace the canals, or shutting down the plant.
“There’s a certain validation to critics in seeing this result in the study,” he says. “But more important, it’s now crossed the threshold of federal law here.”