State Senator Says FPL Isn't Preparing Miami's Nuclear Plant for Sea-Level Rise

State Senator Says FPL Isn't Preparing Miami's Nuclear Plant for Sea-Level Rise
Courtesy of FPL
The Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station is built directly on the waterfront in Homestead — a location that has exposed the plant to serious natural disasters. The power plant survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but the storm's 175 mph winds knocked out communication lines, disabled the emergency fire-safety system, and "severely cracked" an exhaust stack that could have destroyed the plant's back-up power system if the stack had toppled, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

So while Florida Power & Light (FPL) proposes expanding Turkey Point and building two more reactors there, Miami state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez is asking for safer measures to prepare for sea-level rise and major hurricanes — or for FPL to drop the expansion plans altogether. This past August 23, Rodriguez sent the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which regulates nuclear power plants, a letter demanding that FPL add greater sea-level-rise protections to its development plan.

Rodriguez made the letter public this week because the NRC had scheduled a hearing today to move forward with Turkey Point's expansion plans; Hurricane Irma delayed the meeting, but it's still expected to happen by the end of December. Rodriguez is asking the NRC to continue to delay ruling on the plan's approval until FPL addresses the concerns of environmentalists and activists.

"They're only taking into account one foot of sea-level rise in the future," Rodriguez tells New Times. "Some projections — we’re hopeful those projections are wrong — but some projections are orders of magnitude higher than that."

Peter Robbins, an FPL spokesperson who specializes in nuclear energy issues, dismisses Rodriguez's concerns and says FPL has taken sea-level rise into account in its expansion plans of Turkey Point.

"Projected sea-level rise and potential storm surge have both been considered as part of the application and design for all aspects of Turkey Point Units 6 and 7," Robbins says. "The units would be elevated approximately 26 feet above sea level and are specifically designed to withstand natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, flooding, and tidal surges. Further, the existing Turkey Point plant is also well protected against flooding, storm surges, and severe weather. The site successfully withstood the direct impact and associated storm surge from Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992."

But in his August letter to the NRC, Rodriguez laid out three specific concerns, which clean-energy activists opposed to FPL's expansion plans have voiced repeatedly: First, Rodriguez said Turkey Point's Combined Operating License application (COL) accounts for only a foot of sea-level rise by 2100 even though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned last January that the seas could rise as much as 8.2 feet in that time period.

Second, Rodrigeuz said he was upset the plan covered only the new reactors — Units 6 and 7 — that FPL plans to build and does not propose any changes for the existing reactors. Those are the same reactors attached to cooling canals that leak low-level radioactive waste into Biscayne Bay and salt water into Miami's drinking-water aquifer. Environmentalists have long complained that Turkey Point sits too close to protected parks and drinking-water sources.

Third, the lawmaker added he thought FPL's applications did not properly account for what might happen to spent nuclear fuel rods that the plants produce. This is a national issue in the nuclear-power industry. A safe-nuclear-rod storage site in Nevada, called Yucca Mountain, was supposed to be built decades ago, but not-in-my-backyard politics have succeeded in delaying the plan indefinitely. Instead, nuclear plants are mostly forced to store spent radioactive rods onsite, which can pose safety risks if their containment pools malfunction during a natural disaster or terror attack. Spent fuel rods give off heat for decades and can release radioactive material into the air if improperly stored.

"That also is obviously a huge concern all over the country," Rodriguez says. "There really isn't a plan for how these nuclear facilities store their waste."

Anti-nuclear activists argue that if safely storing spent rods is this difficult, nuclear plants simply should not be built. Investigative comedian John Oliver earlier this eyar devoted a long segment on his HBO show Last Week Tonight to the nuclear-waste storage problem:

FPL recently won the right to store low-level radioactive waste from the expansion site underground in a rocky zone, but some environmental activists worry the waste might leak into Miami's largest source of drinking water, the Biscayne Aquifer. Lawyers for the City of Miami asked the NRC to force FPL to rewrite its plan, but NRC regulators say FPL has done enough to mitigate those concerns.

Rodriguez's latest letter comes amid scrutiny of FPL following Hurricane Irma. On September 11, Newsweek reported that FPL had not yet finished reinforcing Turkey Point against the elements before Irma arrived. According to NRC documents Newsweek obtained, Turkey Point's own operators told the NRC that the plant is still working to seal doors and improve floodwater-drainage mechanisms.

As Irma made landfall, FPL shut down one of Turkey Point's two reactors but later had to shut the other reactor off during the storm because of an unrelated valve failure that did not result in radioactive leakage.

According to Newsweek, the report said that poorly sealed exterior doors could lead to "substantial leakage" during a hurricane and that rooms holding cooling pumps "do not have a roof and are exposed to the rainfall." An NRC spokesperson told Newsweek that FPL's response to Irma was "completely appropriate," but activists were still troubled. Newsweek published the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Dave Lochbaum, who said the situation with the cooling-pump room made him anxious.

"The pump room is Turkey Point's Achilles heel," Lochbaum told the magazine. "Without Component Cooling Water during an accident, workers must deploy backup to backup systems. At Fukushima [the Japanese plant that melted down after a 2011 tsunami, exploded, and released radioactive material into the air], workers were unable to accomplish this task in time to prevent three reactor cores from overheating."

Asked about the Newsweek report, Robbins says the story is inaccurate.

"I will not respond to anything that cites the Newsweek article as a source of information, as the article is highly misleading and in many cases totally false," Robbins tells New Times. "While we were trying to restore electricity to customers throughout our state after a major hurricane, Newsweek chose to provide a platform to spread lies and scare the public. The reporter took the opinions of anti-nuclear activists as fact and didn’t allow FPL the opportunity to respond."

Other recent flooding events, however, suggest Rodriguez's concerns aren't entirely academic. In 2014, a major storm flooded FPL's St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant, which sits on a barrier island roughly 120 miles north of downtown Miami. According to Energy and Environment News — a trade publication specializing in law, politics, and safety in those industries — storm drains failed, allowing 50,000 gallons of water to flood one of the reactor's auxiliary buildings, flow through "improperly sealed" electrical passages, and disable "core cooling pumps."

If the reactor had "tripped," or automatically shut down because of a serious situation, the reactor's emergency cooling pumps would have been underwater.

Had that been the case, "after 24 hours, the plant would not achieve a 'safe and stable' condition and reactor core would be damaged, unless emergency recovery action succeeded," the NRC wrote. The NRC labels certain violations using four color codes — green, white, yellow, and red — depending upon the severity. In this instance, the flooding issues were a "white" violation, and the NRC increased its oversight of the St. Lucie plant. FPL says it has since corrected those flooding problems. (Earlier this year, FPL reassured residents living near the Turkey Point and St. Lucie plants that the units would survive a major flooding event.)

"Miami-Dade residents deserve rigorous scrutiny of FP&L’s proposed expansion at Turkey Point, which could threaten our community’s safety," Rodriguez announced in a news release yesterday. "Storm surge and sea level rise have not been adequately taken into account at Turkey Point, especially important after witnessing bigger and stronger hurricanes hitting Florida."
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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.