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It seems an outlandish scenario: A jetliner crashes into the Turkey Point nuclear plant, a horrific explosion follows, and the residents of South Dade run for cover.
Or maybe it's not so crazy. After protests from local activists -- and a New Times story ("Place Your Seatbacks in the Upright Position and Prepare for Meltdown," January 29) -- the nation's nuclear watchdog agency is demanding answers from the state's largest utility, Florida Power & Light. In an April 14 missive to FPL, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requested the following assessment: Will a proposed airport at the former Homestead air base pose a risk to Turkey Point? The plant, which includes two 693-megawatt nuclear reactors that FPL owns, is located five miles to the southeast.
"The modification of the Homestead air base site to a commercial airport has the potential to increase aircraft hazards," wrote Kahtan Jabbour, a senior project manager in the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. Jabbour's two-page letter, addressed to Thomas Plunkett, president of FPL's nuclear division, questions whether designers took into account the possibility of a plummeting jet. "It appears that the original design basis for Turkey Point did not consider a commercial airport in close proximity to Units 3 and 4," Jabbour noted.
The NRC gave FPL 60 days to reply. FPL spokeswoman Janice Brady refused to comment on the NRC letter or the company's possible actions. In the past, FPL officials stated that the airport presented no threat.
The air base site has been contentious almost since it was virtually leveled by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. After much discussion the Dade County Commission awarded a development contract in 1996 to a group associated with the influential Latin Builders Association. The group at first proposed a small airport, then expanded that request to include two jumbo-jet-size runways. The proposal also includes housing and an industrial park.
But last December the air force set the plan back by calling for a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The inquiry, which the air force is conducting with the Federal Aviation Administration, will look into several issues. Among them: What will the airport mean for nearby Everglades and Biscayne national parks? What would be the effect on nearby wetlands of airport runoff? And what danger does the airport pose to Turkey Point? Federal regulators are reviewing hundreds of public comments and expect to complete a draft by fall.
Environmentalists argue that the reactors' walls, nearly three decades old, are vulnerable if a jet plunges from the sky. Several parts of the plant, including external control panels, nuclear fuel storage buildings, and petroleum tanks, are also at risk, they believe. And the expected population increase resulting from redevelopment would likely require new evacuation plans.
It is too early to discuss required safety improvements at Turkey Point, the NRC's Jabbour says. But anti-nuclear activists believe possibilities range from restricting air space to multimillion-dollar fortification of the reactors. Since Turkey Point began operating in the early 1970s, FPL has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in modifications and upgrades.
The environmentalists hailed the NRC's letter. At the very least, it may help stall the airport, they say. "It's a serious issue, otherwise [the NRC] wouldn't have written the letter," says Friends of the Everglades president Joette Lorion, who last year alerted the NRC about the planned airport's proximity to Turkey Point. "It can't just be ignored."
Lorion hopes FPL will try to avoid modifications to the nuclear plant by opposing the airport. Though she spent most of the 1980s dogging the utility about safety problems at the nuclear plant, she now fantasizes that her old nemesis will become an ally. "It would be ironic that after fighting Turkey Point all these years, they might help an environmental cause," she says.