The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board this week found that nuclear regulators failed to consider a growing saltwater plume when they allowed Florida Power & Light to increase operating temperatures at the utility’s Turkey Point cooling canals two years to prevent an ongoing risk of a reactor shutdown.
Despite the finding, the board also concluded that local measures taken in the last two years will likely address the plume that over the decades has moved more than five miles inland, threatening drinking water supplies.
The NRC’s decision, the board found, “is flawed on multiple levels,” including basing its finding on outdated groundwater information tracking the plume. The agency also failed to consider millions of gallons being pumped from the Floridan aquifer to freshen the canals. The board found the agency effectively undermined the law created to prevent federal projects from doing environmental harm.
Over the last two years, problems with the canals have put the nuclear plant, the sixth largest in the nation, under increasing scrutiny and raised questions over plans to build two additional reactors at the site. Last month, FPL announced it planned to postpone construction on the plant for at least four years.
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Canal temperatures first began running high over the summer of 2014 during a regional drought, and after FPL uprated the plant’s two reactors to produce 15 percent more power. At the time, critics worried the uprate would cause trouble in the canals. FPL asked to raise operating limits from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 104, the highest in the country. The NRC waived its standard 30-day comment period and in August approved the new limit. The agency concluded the increased temperatures posed no environmental hazards.
But local critic Barry White complained the agency failed to adequately consider canal water leaking underground and demanded a hearing.
In its decision this week, the board found the NRC failed to consider changes in the canal since 2002, when salinity spiked to nearly double nearby bay water. The NRC also relied on an environmental assessment done in 1972, when the canals were constructed, in 2002 and in 2012, when the agency looked at potential environmental impacts from the power uprate. The NRC also failed to look specifically at the impact of increasing temperatures in the canals, which could increase evaporation and drive up salinity.
The agency’s “reliance on previous environmental documents is particularly difficult to understand in light of the fact that the NRC staff was aware in 2013 of important new information,” the board found.
Still, the board agreed that plans presented during the hearing, including a state plan to freshen the canals by adding up to 15 million gallons of water a day from the Floridan aquifer and a Miami-Dade County plan to clean up the plume by channeling leaking canal water into the boulder zone, will likely resolve problems. Based on that, the board agreed no additional environmental assessment needs to be done.
Unless petitioned for another review, the board’s decision will become final in four months.