Place Your Seatbacks in the Upright Position and Prepare for Meltdown
It's the year 2018 and business is booming in the Homestead area. The two-runway commercial airport at the former air force base is the landing spot of choice for tens of thousands of cargo and passenger flights each year. And the long-awaited ancillary development around the base is proceeding apace. It has indeed become the economic engine South Dade had hoped for.
On this summer day, the southeasterly trade winds are blowing briskly as an aging and fully loaded Boeing 747 cargo jet approaches from the northwest, banks into a wide right turn, and prepares to land. Suddenly a dense flock of gulls, fat and sluggish from feasting on waste at nearby Mount Trashmore, veers into the path of the plane.
Scores of birds are sucked into the two starboard engines, instantly shattering the turbines in a violent explosion. The jet careens wildly as the pilots lose control, hydraulic lines having been ruptured by shrapnel. To their horror, the pilots realize the plane is going down -- and is headed straight for the Turkey Point nuclear facility, a scant five miles southeast of the airport. The devastating impact -- a direct hit on one of the plant's two reactor containment buildings -- can be heard in downtown Miami, nearly 30 miles away.
This may appear to be the stuff of fantasy, the plot from a bad disaster movie. But could it be an unlikely but real danger to the residents of South Florida? Don't ask the authorities who should know. Apparently neither Turkey Point's owners (FP&L), county officials, nor federal regulatory agencies are paying much attention to this particular risk -- even though the threat to planes from birds is real and documented.
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In fact, two weeks ago the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked for permission to kill white ibises around Homestead's air field. "The purpose of the permit is to reduce the significant risk ... to airplane safety and human life by white ibises in flight lanes and on runways," the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission permit proposal states.
Birds are one thing, but nuclear reactors, it seems, are another. FP&L officials argue that it's simply too early in the planning of the airport to be concerned about its possible threat to Turkey Point. "I don't think anyone can get their arms around what it's going to be yet," says Don Mothena, FP&L's corporate manager for plant services. Mothena, along with Neil Batista, the county's radiological emergency preparedness coordinator, are in the initial stages of a study updating estimated evacuation times within a ten-mile radius of the plant.
The survey, however, will not include development projections for the airport and the surrounding area as envisioned by lease owner Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (In addition to airport facilities, HABDI expects to build housing units and an industrial park.) Although HABDI has made no estimate of population growth resulting from base development, the county expects an increase in the Homestead area from 40,000 people in 1994 to 137,000 in the year 2015 -- even without the new airport.
Environmentalists invoked HABDI's proposal for two runways, heavy air traffic, and related development in their recent successful effort to force the federal government to conduct a new environmental impact study for the proposed airport. They argued that the scope of the changes would imperil nearby Everglades and Biscayne national parks.
It is the same argument they are now using with regard to Turkey Point. The nuclear plant's proximity, they say, must be factored in to any airport plans, for fear of a crash and because of concerns about evacuation difficulties. "They built Turkey Point to keep it away from everything," notes Joette Lorion, president of Friends of the Everglades and a long-time opponent of both Turkey Point and the proposed airport.
Federal silence on the issue compounds environmentalists' worries that governmental authorities won't turn their attention to the potential accident risk until development of the commercial airport is already well under way. "They haven't even brought it up," complains Lorion. "It's not like they are trying to build an airport five miles from a hot dog stand."
This past December Lorion sent a letter on behalf of Friends of the Everglades to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking that the agency examine Turkey Point's relationship to the proposed airport. "Reports about an air cargo plane crashing near Miami International Airport, and the rash of military training flight crashes, have heightened our concern about a commercial airport being established so close to an operating nuclear plant," Lorion wrote. (As of last week the NRC had not responded.)
Any significant change outside the plant that could affect it requires a safety review, according to Tom Essig, an NRC administrator. "It depends on traffic volume," he says. "The licensee [FP&L] must consider any event that would have a probability of one in ten million of causing an accident at the plant." According to HABDI's own optimistic estimates, by the year 2015 more than 200,000 takeoffs and landings will occur annually at the airport.
It's not just a crash into a reactor that worries environmentalists. In addition to the nuclear facility, FP&L also operates two fuel-oil generators at Turkey Point. A plane crash might ignite fuel tanks that could demolish power and instrumentation controls located outside the reactor buildings, according to Paul Gunter, director of the reactor watchdog project at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C. "My concern," he says, "is that you could have an external event that could damage the control panels used to shut the plant down."
The NRC has no control over airports, Essig explains; at best, it can recommend that the Federal Aviation Administration impose flight restrictions so planes must avoid the airspace around the nuclear facility. But the FAA has no established criteria pertaining to airports and nuclear power plants, and no specific flight restrictions, says agency spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. (Neither the NRC nor the FAA could provide a list of U.S. airports located within five miles of a nuclear facility.) The FAA does conduct an airspace study whenever a new structure or landing area is installed at an airport. Bergen adds that an airspace study, separate from the environmental review, would be required if HABDI puts in a second runway. Such a study would take Turkey Point into account.
(In the past, the air force has maintained an informal policy of avoiding flights directly over Turkey Point, even though pilots were not officially required to do so, according to Maj. Bobby D'Angelo, a base spokesman. "It's not a problem," he claims. "It's a big sky.")
FP&L officials insist that Turkey Point's two reactor containment buildings are constructed to withstand the impact of an airplane crash. "It would be no one's favorite day," says corporate manager Mothena, "but there would be more deaths from the crash than anything else." A June 1994 FP&L study concluded that the reactors have "no significant vulnerability to aircraft crashes." But there is no mention of airplanes in the plant's original safety analysis report, which lists the flying objects the reactor containment buildings are designed to withstand. Under the heading "tornado-generated missiles," the heaviest object is a passenger car traveling at a velocity of 50 miles per hour and weighing 4000 pounds.