Feds Say FPL Can Store Nuclear Waste Below Miami's Drinking Water Because It's "Not Likely" to Leak
Courtesy of FPL

Feds Say FPL Can Store Nuclear Waste Below Miami's Drinking Water Because It's "Not Likely" to Leak

Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station is already leaking dangerous salt water into the aquifers that are Miami's largest source of drinking water. Despite that alarming fact, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently ruled that FPL can move forward with a plan to build two new nuclear reactors and store nuclear waste — including radioactive material — in an area just below those same aquifers.

Environmentalists warn a leak would threaten the water supply of 2.7 million people, but the feds last week ruled that such a leak is "not likely," and that even if one were to occur, it "would likely be detected and resolved prior to any significant release to the Upper Floridan Aquifer," one of Miami-Dade County's two water stores.

The NRC's Atomic Licensing Board even acknowledged that wastewater at past FPL injection sites had leaked due to poor construction but claimed that new engineering techniques meant that FPL's new sites would be safe. The body also ruled that the concentrations of four harmful chemicals FPL wants to flush underground will not exceed current Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water limits.

The NRC ruled that " the wastewater is unlikely to migrate to the Upper Floridan Aquifer; and even if it did, the concentration of each of the four contaminants would be below the applicable United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) primary drinking water standard and, accordingly, would pose no known health risk."

Importantly, the legal challenge in question did not address the low-level radioactive waste FPL also plans to inject underground. (More on that in a second.)

"Everything we were proposing either met or exceeded all federal standards and had been analyzed in great detail by experts and also would be closely monitored," FPL spokesman Peter Robbins told the Miami Herald, which first broke news of the ruling.

In addition to two environmental groups — the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the National Parks Conservation Association — the ruling directly contradicted the wishes of two South Florida city governments: The Village of Pinecrest and the entire City of Miami, which both begged the NRC to force FPL to rewrite its plans and find a different storage solution for the waste water. The Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority also independently has objected to FPL's plans to expand Turkey Point, which environmentalists say sits too close to multiple protected wetland areas and drinking-water sources.

"FPL has failed to adequately demonstrate that the direct effect, indirect effects, and cumulative impact to the natural physical environment are 'small,'" Assistant City of Miami Attorney Xavier Albán said at last May's NRC hearing. "The environmental impacts will not be 'small.'"

Environmental groups have warned that any chance the project could leak cancerous or radioactive waste into South Florida's drinking water should force FPL to reconsider its plans. But the NRC ruled last week that FPL had done enough due-diligence legally to move forward with its project.

Sara Barczak, SACE's High-Risk Energy Choices Program Director, said that the ruling was expected from the NRC, which tends to side with power-plant operators over environmentalists.

"We are disappointed but not surprised by the Board's decision, which doesn't change the fact that these expensive, water-intensive reactors at Turkey Point are unneeded, poorly planned, and the builder, Westinghouse, is bankrupt," Barczak said. "FPL's proposal (is) speculative and clearly a bad economic deal for FPL customers."

Due to cost overruns at a nuclear site in Georgia, the company that was supposed to build FPL's new reactors, Westinghouse, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, and FPL has not yet found a replacement builder. FPL still must pass through a series of regulatory hurdles before the project comes online some time after the year 2030.

The NRC held a hearing last May to discuss the SACE-led challenge to the plan. The fight has stretched back for nearly a decade: FPL announced its plans to build new reactors in 2009, and SACE filed a legal complaint about the company's Environmental-Impact Statement in 2010. Despite numerous attempts to kill the complaint over multiple years, SACE's contention — that potentially dangerous carcinogenic chemicals, including heptachlor and tetrachloroethylene, could possibly leak into drinking water — stood.

SACE's complaint did not address that FPL plans to inject "low concentrations" of radioactive waste into the Boulder Zone, a rocky area of brackish salt water that sits 3,000 feet below ground. A SACE representative previously told New Times that the organization filed a complaint so early in the permitting process that it did not know at the time that so-called "radwaste" would be injected underground.

The NRC's ruling reads:

We find that the NRC Staff has shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the FEIS [Environmental Impact Statement] is correct in concluding that the environmental impacts from the deep injection wells will be “small” because (1) the wastewater is unlikely to migrate to the Upper Floridan Aquifer, see infra Part V.A; and (2) even if the wastewater were to migrate to the Upper Floridan Aquifer, the four contaminants at issue in this case will not adversely impact the USDW, because the pre-injection concentration of each contaminant is below its EPA MCL, or primary drinking water standard.

Miami-Dade County has injected raw sewage into the Boulder Zone for decades, since at least the 1960s. But environmentalists point to a 2015 United States Geological Survey study, which used a newer technique called "seismic imaging" to show that multiple fault lines and collapse-structures exist within the "confining layer" that separates the Boulder Zone from the Lower Floridan Aquifer.

That governmental study specifically warned that, if those fault lines exist near waste-water injection sites, such as the one FPL is proposing, the waste could leak into drinking water:

The strike-slip fault and karst collapse structures span confining units of the Floridan aquifer system and could provide high permeability passageways for groundwater movement. If present at or near wastewater injection utilities, these features represent a plausible physical system for the upward migration of effluent injected into the Boulder Zone to overlying [EPA] designated [USDWs] in the upper part of the Floridan aquifer system. 

But the NRC last week specifically rejected this claim, arguing that FPL had reasonably addressed those concerns.

The challenge at hand dealt with four specific contaminants that FPL wants to flush underground — the pesticide heptachlor and industrial solvents ethylbenzene, toluene, and tetrachloroethylene. The NRC ruled that the concentrations of each chemical would remain below the EPA's Maximum Contaminant Levels for drinking water.

The EPA also sets stricter, but voluntary, "Maximum Contaminant Level Goals," which the EPA says list “the maximum level of a contaminant in drinking water at which no known or anticipated adverse effect on the health of persons would occur, and which allows an adequate margin of safety.” The EPA sets its MCLG's at zero for potential carcinogens, but the NRC ruled that those guidelines are a "non-enforceable public-health goal," and that "treatment systems may not be able to effectively remove chemicals in their entirety from public water supplies."

SACE has 25 days to appeal the ruling, and Barczak says the group is currently weighing its options.

Nationally, power companies have begun to move away from building new nuclear plants, largely due to the fact that nuclear costs have gone up while costs for clean-energy technologies, including solar and wind power, continue to drop at steep rates. Environmental activists also note that nuclear is not a "clean" source of energy, as the uranium-mining process currently relies on fossil fuels and massive mining operations.

"We are reviewing the Board's decision in order to determine our next steps," Barczak said. "Regardless, FPL has many, many hurdles to clear and this is just one step in a very long process. Unfortunately, FPL customers have already unfairly been charged more than $300 million towards this increasingly speculative project and we believe that must stop and FPL's shareholders must start shouldering the financial burden."

A citizen-led petition to convince lawmakers to legislate against the plan now has more than 67,000 signatures.

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