FPL Wins Battle to Store Radioactive Waste Under Miami's Drinking Water Aquifer


Update 1/17: Environmental activists have started a petition urging Florida lawmakers to prevent FPL from storing waste underground.

South Florida sits atop two gigantic underground stores of water: the Biscayne and Floridan Aquifers. Miamians get most of their drinking water from the upper Biscayne Aquifer, while the government has used the lower portion of the Floridian to dump waste and untreated sewage — despite the fact that multiple studies have warned that waste could one day seep into the drinking water.

So environmentalists are concerned that Florida Power & Light now wants to dump full-on radioactive waste into the that lower water table, called the Boulder Zone. A small group of activists called Citizens Allied for Safe Energy (CASE) tried to stop FPL's plan, but their legal petition was shot down this past Friday.

According to NRC documents, CASE's petition was dismissed for being filed "inexcusably late" in FPL's application process.

"This was thrown out on procedural grounds," says CASE's president, Barry J. White. "The science is still there."

CASE had filed a petition with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but the NRC on Friday threw out CASE's complaint, saying the environmental group had filed too late in FPL's approval process.

The fight stems from the energy company's plan to build two nuclear reactors at the controversial Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station south of Miami by roughly 2030. The towers might not be operational for a decade or two, but that doesn't mean the public should stop paying attention to them. FPL is submitting numerous proposals about the project to the government.

As part of that package, FPL told the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it plans to store contaminated water used to clean the reactors, as well as radioactive waste ("radwaste") in the Boulder Zone. In October, the NRC issued a report, stating FPL's plan would pose "no environmental impacts" to the South Florida environment.

Roughly a month later, on November 28, CASE filed a legal petition demanding that the NRC hold a hearing on FPL's radioactive waste plan. CASE alleges the government failed to address a host of concerns about the power company's plan.

"Everything will be put into a supposedly 'hermetically sealed' Boulder Zone," White told New Times in December. "But anybody who lives in South Florida knows nothing below us is hermetically sealed." Environmentalists say the plan could leak carcinogens such as cesium, strontium 90, and tritium right into the drinking-water aquifers.

An FPL spokesperson Friday provided the following statement to New Times:

After an exhaustive and comprehensive review of the proposed Turkey Point Units 6 & 7 project, including the plans to safely use reclaimed water for cooling, the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s staff concluded '…there are no environmental impacts to preclude issuing Combined Licenses to build and operate two reactors next to the existing Turkey Point nuclear power plant."

But CASE's November complaint cited both government data and FPL's own engineers, who admitted in separate hearings that waste could leak upward from the Boulder Zone into the Biscayne Aquifer.

For one, the United States Ground Water Atlas, a government document, warns the Boulder Zone "is thought to be connected to the Atlantic Ocean, possibly about 25 miles east of Miami, where the sea floor is almost 2,800 feet deep along the Straits of Florida." CASE's petition says the NRC failed to address this issue.

Likewise, "an upward hydraulic gradient from the Floridan [Aquifer] to the Biscayne [Aquifer]," an FPL engineer testified in January 2016. "The Floridan is under pressure. Therefore, you have flow from the Floridan into the Biscayne and not vice versa."

Since filing that complaint, CASE also uncovered yet another government study, which confirms the Boulder Zone can leak into "underground sources of drinking water" in South Florida.

The 2015 study, from the United States Geological Survey, says that numerous tectonic faults and other fissures exist under Biscayne Bay and the "Miami Terrace," the seafloor immediately east of the Miami shoreline.

The report states flatly:

Recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey of seismic-reflection profiles acquired in onshore canals and offshore in Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic continental shelf have indicated the presence of tectonic faults (one strike-slip fault and multiple reverse faults) and karst collapse structures, and these studies substantiate the utility of this approach for locating feasible vertical-fluid flow pathways. 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 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated underground sources of drinking water in the upper part of the Floridan aquifer system. 

"The evidence is so strong that it's doubtful the zone is 'hermetically sealed,'" White says.

FPL contends that any radioactive-waste discharges will be carefully monitored to ensure they won't leak. But the company's credibility with the public is not in good shape. Early last year, Miami-Dade County officials said cooling canals from Turkey Point were already leaking waste into Biscayne Bay — the ordeal, and FPL's alleged refusal to take proper responsibility for the damage, led to a lawsuit.

Now, White says, he and CASE plan to lobby state lawmakers to try to outlaw injections into the Boulder Zone through state law. To put things mildly, CASE is fighting an uphill battle: FPL is one of the largest campaign donors in Florida politics.

Here is the NRC's full rejection letter:

Update 1/17: Activists have now started a petition opposing FPL's plan.

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