Turkey Point reactor hearings pit jobs against water

Florida Power & Light wants to add two new nuclear reactors to its Turkey Point power plant about 25 miles south of Miami.
Florida Power & Light wants to add two new nuclear reactors to its Turkey Point power plant about 25 miles south of Miami. Miami Herald Staff

Allan Martin lives in Gainesville where he is a University of Florida sophomore majoring in nuclear engineering. But this week, he and three other engineering students drove to South Florida to testify at public Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings that could influence what happens to two new reactors planned for Turkey Point.

Martin, who said his expenses were covered by lobbyist Jerald Paul’s Energy Information Center, was unsurprisingly a big supporter of adding two more nuclear reactors to the site along Biscayne Bay.

“We have no qualms about any of the recommendations made by the NRC,” he told commissioners. “Go Gators. Go nuclear.”

In the long-running debate over whether to build new reactors between two national parks on fragile wetlands stressed by cooling canals and threatened by rising sea levels, lines are being drawn between the environment and the economy. The hearings this week were intended to focus on environmental concernsand critics have raised a long list of them. But Florida Power & Light employees, union reps, and other supporters, including Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter and Homestead Hospital CEO Bill Duquette, tried to shift the focus to economic benefits.

“FPL is a great corporate citizen,” Duquette said. “They’re very into community activities.”

The hearings, held Wednesday and Thursday at Florida International University and in Homestead, provided a rare chance for the public to weigh in on the federal process. The state signed off on the expansion last May. Comments from the meetings will be considered before a final environmental report is issued. A safety review, which does not allow public comment, is also being conducted.

Expanding the plant has long drawn criticism from environmentalists, but this summer concern intensified after problems in the plant’s cooling canals surfaced — a spike in temperature and an algae outbreak triggered emergency measures — and the state changed the way it monitors the canals.

“Marine parks and huge nuclear plants simply don’t go together,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Important natural resources would be in serious jeopardy.”

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in town with President Barack Obama this week, said her agency, which oversees Biscayne and Everglades national parks, is carefully considering the balance between the need for nuclear power and the location of the plant. But the NRC will have the final call.

“Nuclear energy has been and will continue to be a viable resource of power ...,” she said. “And we want to make sure that all of the things that are important to the ecosystem of this region are taken into account as they move forward or assess the future of those plants.”

Biscayne National Park, which has criticized the plans, is also planning to file more detailed comments before the May 22 deadline for mailed and emailed responses, said Superintendent Brian Carlstrom.

If built, FPL officials say the plant would save the state $100 billion in fossil-fuel costs, cut carbon emissions by 481 million tons, and provide 800 permanent jobs. The company hopes to start construction after permits are approved in 2017, said spokesman Greg Brostowicz.

But mayors from Miami, South Miami, and Pinecrest say the reactors, which are designed to last at least 40 years, don’t do enough to factor in climate change. Plans only account for a foot of sea level rise by 2100 and not the three feet projected by the United Nations climate panel that issues forecasts, the mayors say. The cities, which sued to stop the addition of towering utility lines along U.S. 1 needed to carry additional power, also object to changes in monitoring water quality around the cooling canals.

While the new reactors would use reclaimed water from a nearby Miami-Dade County sewage-treatment plant, backup cooling water would come from wells drilled deep in the aquifer. Those wells could use up to 7.4 billion gallons of water a year — about a billion more than now used by all of the Keys, said Miami Waterkeeper Executive Director Rachel Silverstein.

At the hearing, retired lawyer Joseph Segor also wondered if FPL had a plan for nuclear waste stored at the site if rising seas threaten the plant.

“What I would suggest here is that a careful scientific analysis be made,” he said.

Critics also question the wisdom of allowing a utility to use so much water while spending upwards of $8 billion on Everglades restoration work.

“I’m not against nuclear power. I own stock in (FPL parent company) Next Era,” said Capt. Dan Kipnis. “This is strictly a brains thing. Why build it there?”