Federal nuclear regulators have wrapped up a seven-year environmental study partly clearing the way for two new reactors at Turkey Point, just as work gets underway on a massive cleanup of leaking cooling canals connected to the plant’s old reactors.
In a two-volume 1,200-page review, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission found the use of cooling towers to operate the new reactors perched on the shores of Biscayne Bay between two national parks would do no damage to the fragile ecosystem. The approval comes as Florida Power & Light begins tackling ongoing problems at the aging cooling canals that over the years pushed an underground plume of saltwater miles inland, threatening drinking water supplies, and leaked water tainted with a radioactive tracer into Biscayne Bay.
By the end of the month, the utility expects to complete a new well in the Floridan aquifer to freshen the canals and stop heavier, hyper-salty water from migrating. An injection well has also begun dumping leaky canal water into the boulder zone, below the Biscayne aquifer that supplies fresh water to the region, said FPL senior director Steve Scroggs.
The thought of plopping down two new reactors and having no environmental impact, it’s mind-boggling.
Sara Barczak, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
“So as of September, we are draining about 15 million gallons a day of hypersaline water from under the cooling canals and disposing it back in the deep well,” he said. “That’s about 7 million pounds per day of salt from the groundwater underneath the cooling canals.”
The problems with the cooling canals, which surfaced during a 2014 drought that spiked water temperatures and twice caused the plant to power down, caused regulators to take another look at their environmental study begun in 2009. The problems spurred lawsuits and increased regulatory scrutiny. Under pressure from environmentalists, state regulators issued a new management plan calling for the canals to be cleaned up in 10 years. The county cited the utility for violating local water laws and demanded a faster cleanup plan. The county has also urged FPL to abandon the canals and instead use the cooling tower technology for existing reactors.
The towers use treated wastewater from a nearby county sewer plant. Wastewater is then discarded in an injection well drilled into the boulder zone. If not enough wastewater is available, water is pumped from a series of radial collector wells that branch under Biscayne Bay.
But environmentalists, who have long opposed the expansion, say moving forward on the project now, with so many questions still unanswered about the region’s complex hydrology, makes no sense.
“The thought of plopping down two new reactors and having no environmental impact, it’s mind-boggling,” said Sara Barczak, a director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which will argue risks in an upcoming hearing before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board in the spring. “It’s one of those locations where you just scratch your head and you think this is not the right place for this.”
Critics also worry that FPL, which repeatedly denied problems in the canals despite mounting evidence, and the NRC have not done a good job in protecting the environment.
The NRC is “looking at how a power plant needs to be built, not what are the environmental impacts,” said John Adornato, a regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “FPL proposes these radial collector wells under Biscayne National Park and taking our fresh water at the same time we’re trying to spend millions if not billions of dollars to put freshwater into the park.”
Adornato said the study also failed to fully address impacts from climate change by emphasizing lower carbon emissions but not looking at threats from more intense hurricanes and sea rise.
There is also concern that the environmental review could be outdated by the time FPL builds the reactors. Earlier this year, the utility announced it would delay construction to at least 2020, leading some to wonder if FPL might abandon the plans. But Scroggs said Tuesday that the delay was merely intended to allow other new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina to be completed so FPL could better gauge costs.