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FPL’s nuke cooling plan clears hurdle

Over the objections of Biscayne National Park managers and environmentalists, water managers on Thursday signed off on Florida Power & Light’s plan to drill a network of coastal wells designed to tap Biscayne Bay as a back-up system for cooling two new nuclear reactors proposed for Turkey Point.

FPL intends to use some 90 million gallons a day of treated wastewater from Miami-Dade County as the primary source of cooling water for its controversial $12 billion to $18 billion expansion project at the sprawling plant, which sits along south Biscayne Bay a few miles from the park headquarters.

But the utility also wants to drill a series of “radial wells’’ — named because they include up to a dozen shafts radiating out 900 feet from a central well, a design evoking bicycle spokes — that would be capable of drawing up to 125 million gallons a day of water through the porous limestone beneath the bay.

A report by the South Florida Water Management District noted “some concerns” the wells could potentially turn already too-salty coastal waters saltier, compromise Everglades restoration projects to restore fresh water flows to the bay and worsen salt-water intrusion that has already marched inland in South Miami-Dade and threatened drinking water supplies.

But the district’s analysis, based on computer modeling supplied by FPL, also recommended approval of the wells – under the condition that the utility operate them no more than the “equivalent of 60 days” over a 12-month period and monitor impacts on sea grass. The proposal faces several more hurdles before final state approval.

Mark Lewis, superintendent of Biscayne National Park, urged the district’s governing board to postpone the vote, saying the district had not consulted with park scientists as it had in past studies of Turkey Point’s impacts on surrounding shallow waters, which are thick with sea grass beds and mangroves that serve as nurseries for an array of marine life.

According to FPL’s computer modeling, 97 percent of the water collected by the wells would be salty bay water but Lewis called that work “suspect,” saying the geologic zone where sea water meets the Biscayne Aquifer, source of much of Miami-Dade’s drinking water, is not well understood. FPL and water managers, for instance, are still working to assess the role Turkey Point’s existing cooling canal system has played in pushing salty water inland.

“We’re betting the bank that the modeling works when all of our scientists say the modeling isn’t designed for this and isn’t really good in this region,” Lewis said.

Environmentalists echoed Lewis, saying the complicated report on a well system untested in South Florida’s porous limestone geology had been available for only a week. They also called a proposed monitoring plan toothless because it included no specific measures for FPL to scale back the wells or pursue another back-up source, such as the deep Floridan aquifer, if the wells prove more damaging than modeling predicts.

“The question is who is on the hook to deal with the impacts,” said Kahlil Kettering, a Biscayne Bay analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, questioned whether the wells were intended solely as a back-up, saying the 60-day language would potentially allow continuous low-level operation in a bay starved for freshwater.

Peter Robbins, a spokesman for FPL, said the wells were “absolutely a back-up system’’ and the utility preferred to treated wastewater over salt water but needed the short-term back-up because of potential uncertainties over the quality or quantity of wastewater. He downplayed potential impacts to the Biscayne Aquifer, saying the modeling was “tremendously conservative’’ and based on a scenario using wells as a full-time supply rather than the 60-day limit FPL has agreed to..

Juan Portuondo, a Miami businessman who serves on the governing board, said both FPL and the county had vested interests in making treated sewage work. Under state law, Miami-Dade has to find a way to reuse some 117 million gallons a day of sewage by 2025 that it now pumps up out to the Atlantic, he said. “It’s the best solution for both.’’

Board members briefly discussed postponing the vote but unanimously approved it after hearing the agency faced a Monday deadline for filing recommendations to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Other agencies, including Miami-Dade County, which also has questioned the wells, will file similar recommendations. An administrative judge is expected to issue a recommendation sometime next year. Final approval will go to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet.

FPL hopes to secure its license from federal regulators for the two new reactors by June 2014. If the utility goes ahead with the project, the new reactors would be scheduled to go online in 2022 and 2023.