Miami-Dade County

Florida Power & Light cooling canals at Turkey Point nuclear power plant still too hot

Florida Power & Light needs millions more gallons of freshwater to manage cooling canals that keep two nuclear reactors at Turkey Point from overheating, company officials said in an emergency request to the South Florida Water Management District.

The hot canals do not pose a safety risk, federal regulators have said, but they have forced the utility to dial back operations over the scorching summer.

So with the heat showing no sign of easing, could brownouts be far off?

“We have record electricity demand and what we’re doing is taking proactive action to make sure we can effectively manage the situation in an environmentally responsible way while maintaining reliability for our customers,” said FPL spokesman Michael Waldron.

To cool the canals, the Water Management District on Thursday authorized pumping up to 100 million gallons of water a day from a nearby canal system, but only if it doesn’t take too much water stored for Everglades restoration. The canals carry freshwater to Biscayne Bay and tamp down salinity, which can fuel algae blooms and harm marine life.

The 100 million gallons would be in addition to 14 million gallons a day from the Floridan aquifer that water managers approved in June, after high temperatures threatened to shut down the reactors.

With blistering heat this summer, the canals have proved difficult to manage. High temperatures, bright sunny days and little rain in that area, coupled with a festering algae bloom throughout the 168-mile canal system, caused water temperatures to spike, FPL officials said. Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency granted a request from the utility to up operating temperature limits in the canals from 100 degrees to 104 degrees to keep reactors running.

But despite the aquifer water and the addition of chemicals to treat the algae, canal temperatures remain high. In July and August, temperatures at times reached 102 degrees, officials said in their request to water managers. If temperatures exceed 104 degrees, the plant’s two nuclear reactors would need to start shutting down within 12 hours, “which could impact grid reliability,” the letter said.

The water from the nearby L-31E canal system, FPL officials say, will not only cool the canals but help fight heat-trapping algae and reduce salinity in the canals, which is currently 50 percent higher than normal.

“We have seen some improvements, but it’s just not enough right now and we need more water in the canals,” said FPL spokesman Greg Brostowicz.

Diverting water to the canals has renewed concerns about damaging nearby Biscayne Bay, which has withered over the decades as water from historic Everglades flow got redirected in a canal system designed to prevent flooding. In its order on Thursday, water managers said FPL can only draw water from the L-31E if levels are above what’s needed to restore the bay. The order expires on Oct. 15, the historic end of the South Florida rainy season.

“After Oct. 15 is when we don’t have the regular flows and that’s when we get really concerned that you’re going to get salinity rising and problems spiraling,” said Jane Graham, an Everglades policy analyst for Audubon Florida.

The decision to pump the 100 million gallons will be an important test of district rules designed to protect water, Graham said.

With the plant sitting between two national parks, concerns over damage have dogged Turkey Point since the 1970s when environmentalists sued to keep FPL from dumping billions of gallons of hot water into Biscayne Bay. Today, the canals cool the water by circulating it through a radiator-like loop without escaping into the bay. But environmentalists worry that the increasingly heavy salty water in the canals is sinking deeper, pushing an underground saltwater plume further inland. Environmentalists have also worried that a $3 billion expansion of the plant to generate 15 percent more power has driven up canal temperatures.

Waldron said the expansion only increased temperatures in the cooling canal by one or two degrees, not enough to affect the summer spikes. But the repeated requests for water have some questioning the plant’s future.

“The real question is once they have permission to draw off the surplus water... then they can start incrementally petitioning for more water,” said South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard, a Florida International University biologist. “How far can they push this?”

Water managers say they will take daily measurements and notify FPL by 10 a.m. whether there is enough water to be be pumped between the two canal systems.