Florida Keys Demand FPL Stop Using Leaking Turkey Point Cooling Canals

FPL's Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station.
FPL's Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station. Courtesy of FPL
The Turkey Point nuclear plant sits on the southern edge of Miami-Dade, but that doesn't mean it's the only county affected by the Florida Power and Light plant. Last year, Miami-Dade officials sanctioned FPL and warned that the canals used to cool the plant's wastewater were leaking into Biscayne Bay. Radioactive materials were found in the water, albeit at levels most scientists say are safe for humans.

But that leakage — which also impacts local ecosystems — could also drift down to the Florida Keys. And so yesterday, the Monroe County Commission passed a resolution urging FPL to stop using the canals for good.

Citing concern "about these recent discoveries and potential impacts on Card Sound, Biscayne Bay, and the Florida Keys’ drinking water supply," the resolution says, the county wants FPL to "discontinue the use of the cooling canal system in favor of a more modern mechanical draft cooling tower system."

The Monroe County Commission passed the resolution during its regular meeting yesterday. An FPL spokesperson could not be reached late last evening for comment.

But Turkey Point — and its cooling canal system, in particular — have been the bane of Florida environmentalists since the plant opened in the 1970s. The plant sits along the coastline in Homestead, due west of Elliott Key. Environmental groups, like the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and National Parks Conservation Alliance (NPCA), have long complained that the power plant sits perilously close to protected nature areas.

"You couldn’t find a worse place to put a nuclear power plant," the NCPA's Biscayne program manager, Caroline McLaughlin, told New Times last month.

Turkey Point is the only nuclear power plant in the U.S. that uses the "cooling canal" system, which pumps nuclear waste through five-mile-long, radiator-like tubes back and forth along the bay. The canals cover roughly 5,900 acres. According to the Miami Herald, the canal system was created in 1972, as a compromise with regulators — FPL had originally proposed just dumping wastewater right into the bay.

But environmentalists warned at the time that the canal system was almost guaranteed to leak — and leak it has. The canals have caused a massive plume of saltwater to bloom in the water surrounding the plant, in a radius that stretches from the Homestead Air Force Base, at the north end of the city, all the way down into the Keys. And the plume is growing.

Despite the clear evidence that the canals were to blame, FPL then fought with Miami-Dade County over a solution. In 2015, the company agreed to pump highly salty water deep down into the so-called "boulder zone" of the Floridan Aquifer — while FPL says the zone is sealed and will not leak into drinking water sources, environmentalists and numerous governmental studies have warned that the boulder zone could leak out into Biscayne Bay, or into the Biscayne Aquifer, South Florida's main source of drinking water. The zone, however, is already full of highly salty water. (More on the boulder zone later.)

Last year, the state government gave FPL 10 years to clean up its mess, but environmentalists warned the sanctions likely did not go far enough.

According to Monroe County documents, FPL has a contract in place with the state to run the cooling canals until 2033. But Keys lawmakers don't think the island environment can wait that long and are now asking FPL to discontinue using the canals as soon as possible.

They want the plant to start using draft cooling towers, the typical, cone-shaped smokestacks seen in standard images of nuclear power plants, á la Homer Simpson's Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

In the meantime, FPL is currently locked into a plan to expand the plant at Turkey Point, and build two new reactors, numbers six and seven, by roughly 2030. But the plan clashes with climate change initiatives, as the uranium mining, upkeep, and waste disposal still leave a sizable carbon footprint on the earth. Nuclear generation and plant-building also remain expensive businesses, as costs for solar and wind energy continue to plummet. (FPL, which made a $1.6 billion profit in 2015, also just raised rates on consumers by $811 million in order to build a backup natural-gas power plant, at a time when environmentalists warn that new fossil-fuel infrastructure could lock the Earth into increasingly catastrophic levels of warming.)

Despite these facts, FPL remains committed to expanding Turkey Point — and has proposed storing nuclear wastewater, including radioactive waste, inside the aforementioned boulder zone. Environmentalists now say they're worried the waste from the new reactors could leak straight into Miami-Dade drinking water. This plan has sparked two legal fights — one challenge was thrown out earlier this year, but a longstanding legal fight from SACE and the NPCA could force FPL to reconsider its expansion plans.

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

First and foremost, Florida Power & Light Company remains committed to operating Turkey Point safely and protecting both the environment and public health, and that commitment extends to implementing the terms and conditions of the Consent Order we agreed to with the state of Florida.

That includes fact-based solutions that will result in improved water quality in the area, including the current removal of 14 million gallons of hypersaline water each day from underneath the cooling canals.

To that end, we are also actively working towards the construction of a system of wells that will safely remove and dispose of the hypersaline water going forward. Our sophisticated modeling shows this well system will improve water quality around Turkey Point and reduce the size of the hypersaline plume over time, drawing back hypersaline water from both the west and the east. 

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.