Multiple studies have warned that fluid injected into the "Boulder Zone," the lowest section of the aquifers that sit underneath South Florida, could leak directly into Miami's drinking water. Despite those warnings, Florida Power & Light has barreled forward with a plan to store radioactive waste in that low-lying area as early as 2028. FPL also hopes to build two new nuclear reactors at its Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Homestead — a site that the county and state have already cited for leaking saltwater into the drinking-water aquifer and radioactive wastewater into Biscayne Bay.
FPL first filed plans to build those new reactors and to store their radioactive waste in the Boulder Zone back in 2009. Environmentalists including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) quickly filed legal challenges and have been fighting since.
Now, after seven years, federal regulators will finally hold a hearing next week to discuss whether FPL can go forward with a plan that green activists worry could contaminate Miami's drinking water system with radioactive material and carcinogens.
In a phone call with reporters yesterday, representatives from SACE, the NPCA, and lawyers for the two organizations spoke alongside South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard to warn that time is running out to challenge FPL's waste-storage plan.
The Boulder Zone has "two features that should scare the heck out of everybody," said Stoddard, who teaches at Florida International University and has become one of FPL's most vocal critics. "The first is a feature called 'Karst collapse,' which is when the ceiling falls in, creating a conical depression with a hole in it, where water can pass upwards into the upper Floridan Aquifer. The second is vertical fault lines, where water can migrate up into places that can get to us."
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a federal body, is tasked with approving FPL's "Environmental Impact Study" for Turkey Point's new reactors. In 2010, SACE filed an appeal, contending that the energy company's plan could leak wastewater into the Biscayne Aquifer, the area's largest source of drinking water. If SACE succeeds, FPL will be forced to rewrite its Impact Statement, potentially delaying the project by years.
A second group, called Citizens Allied for Safe Energy (CASE), also filed a petition with the NRC last year to stop the plan. But the NRC threw CASE's legal challenge out in January, claiming it had been filed too late. More than 66,000 people have signed a Change.org petition asking state legislators to force FPL to rewrite its plans.
But while FPL has tried to dismiss SACE's complaint for the last seven years, regulators have decided the claim has enough merit to hold a hearing on May 2.
Stoddard agrees. He said that he sat in on an NRC meeting last August, where he first heard about the so-called "radwaste" plan. Stoddard said he went home and researched the Boulder Zone, and was stunned as to what he found.
According to FPL's Environmental Impact Statement, the Boulder Zone is "hermetically sealed," meaning waste couldn't escape the area. But government documents refute that claim. A 2015 U.S. Geological Survey study, conducted in tandem with Miami-Dade County, used a technique called "seismic reflection" to deduce whether the Boulder Zone contained any holes or leaks — and the study provided damning evidence that Karst collapse structures and fault lines run all throughout the zone's top layer. (Likewise, an FPL engineer also testified in the past that the Boulder Zone has the capacity to leak upwards.)
"This is not mentioned in any of the safety reports that the NRC has," Stoddard said.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for FPL, Peter Robbins, dismissed SACE and its compatriots as anti-energy extremists.
"SACE is an anti-utility, anti-nuclear group with a political agenda," he said via email. "Protecting the safety of our customers and our team members is our top priority. Our men and women work and live in this community, and we are committed to ensuring their safety, the public’s safety and protecting the environment."
He added that the company will use next week's hearing to "share information about the quality of water that would be safely sent deep underground as part of the Turkey Point units 6 & 7 project." FPL contends that the levels of radioactive waste injected into the Boulder Zone will be far lower than regulatory benchmarks.
"The levels of every single compound in the wastewater will be in compliance with strict federal standards, even though this water is going to an area that is deep underground and inaccessible," Robbins wrote. "The extremely low levels of compounds would be confined in this area deep underground, where they would mix with salty water. This process is used safely throughout the state of Florida and the southeastern United States."
Miami-Dade County has used the Boulder Zone to stash raw sewage since at least the 1960s. But both SACE and Stoddard say there are documented cases in which the zone has leaked that waste. SACE's legal team said its expert will share those instances with the NRC next Tuesday. Likewise, Stoddard warned that so-called "diluted, low-level" radioactive waste can collect in nearby plants like kelp, for example, and become toxic over time.
The environmentalists also voiced concerns about other portions of the Turkey Point expansion plan. Captain Dan Kipnis, a local fisherman and longtime climate-change activist, warned that FPL's plan only plans for 12 inches of sea-level rise by the year 2100. Scientists now expect seas to rise by closer to eight feet by that time.
"We wouldn’t get a tidal wave, necessarily, but we could definitely get a storm surge from a hurricane," Kipnis said. "If those fuel rods lose [cooling] water, you get an explosion like Fukushima. It could be catastrophic."
(Robbins, the FPL spokesperson, disagrees, and says the company has taken sea-level rise into account. "The units themselves and the surrounding facilities have been intentionally designed to sit far above most other structures in Miami-Dade County," he wrote. "The plant area will be raised to a finished grade elevation of approximately 19 ft. - 25.5 ft. above sea level.")
SACE's Director of High-Risk Energy, Sara Barczak, also warned that the project is simply going to be far too expensive for FPL to finish building. While costs for renewable energy, like solar and wind power, continue to fall steeply, nuclear reactors keep getting more expensive to build.
The Westinghouse company, which is owned by Toshiba and builds nuclear reactors, went bankrupt earlier this year, after costs ran too high at nuclear sites in South Carolina and Georgia. FPL is planning to build Westinghouse's AP1000 reactor at the Turkey Point expansion — but, with Westinghouse's bankruptcy, the power company must now find a new company to build Westinghouse's design. SACE's Barczak warned that even before Westinghouse went under, costs for new nuclear plants exceeded $20 billion.
"Now, you don’t have Westinghouse anymore," Barczak warned. "Nobody is going to bid what Westinghouse bid on those on South Carolina and Georgia projects."
Given all the concerns, SACE had one obvious warning for FPL: Get out of the nuclear-energy game.
"The nuclear blinders need to be torn off," she said. "The reality is, energy efficiency is a fraction of the costs. As long as utilities can make money building big, old power plants, they're going to pass the cost unfairly to customers. And we'll continue to see this stupid trend of building something that is not needed and not sustainable."