Miami-Dade, FPL pitch deal to use treated sewage to fix nuclear cooling canals

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has struck a deal with Florida Power and Light to use treated wastewater to freshen cooling canals, pictured here in 2016, at the Turkey Point nuclear plant. FPL has agreed to share the cost of a new treatment facility. The deal must still be approved by the county commission.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has struck a deal with Florida Power and Light to use treated wastewater to freshen cooling canals, pictured here in 2016, at the Turkey Point nuclear plant. FPL has agreed to share the cost of a new treatment facility. The deal must still be approved by the county commission. emichot@miamiherald.com

Miami-Dade County’s mayor and Florida Power and Light have hatched a plan, likely costing hundreds of millions of dollars, to solve a looming offshore sewage problem.

While details remain vague, Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced in his state of the county address on Tuesday an agreement with FPL to share the cost of building a wastewater treatment facility at the county’s south district station. Treated wastewater would then be used to clean up the troubled cooling canal system at Turkey Point’s nuclear reactors, which has been leaking into groundwater and creating a saltwater plume threatening nearby drinking wells. That same water would also be used to cool a natural gas unit.

The plan is not without major challenges: County commissioners, who previously backed an effort to retire the canals, would need to approve it. It would need to meet strict water quality rules. And it would be expensive, but just how expensive remains unclear.

FPL sees it as “a tremendous opportunity,” said Vice President Mike Sole. “By going down this path, we … no longer have to use the environment for our water source.”

Using the water for the troubled cooling canals that cover 5,900 acres along Biscayne Bay also provides a solution to a 2025 state deadline requiring the county to stop dumping sewage offshore and to reuse 60 percent of its wastewater. A previous arrangement with FPL fell apart when the utility shelved two new reactors, which would have used wastewater to run cooling towers.

“When the county was thinking of doing it on its own, it was upwards of $1 billion,” said Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department Director Lester Sola. “So the county really sees it as a mutually beneficial solution.”

For the plan to work, FPL must get permission to extend the life of the existing reactors, a controversial move tucked into Tuesday’s announcement which overshadowed a number of other changes the utility plans to make. The reactors were first licensed in the 1970s and due to retire in 2032 and 2033. Sole said the utility would file a request with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Tuesday to extend operating permits by another 20 years, following a nationwide trend as the industry struggles with its aging atomic fleet.

But extending operations to 80 years would be unprecedented, said Southern Alliance for Clean Energy consultant Laura Reynolds.

“There has never been an 80-year license given to any reactor in the country,” she said, adding that SACE would likely challenge an extension.

The utility also plans to increase power output by 40 megawatts by improving turbines. FPL spokeswoman Bianca Cruz said the improved efficiency will not affect the canals, which began growing hotter after an uprate in the nuclear reactors in 2013 boosted power by 250 megawatts.

A University of Miami study later commissioned by the county blamed the jump on the uprate and warned it should serve as a “cautionary note” about any future power increases without providing additional and reliable cooling methods.

FPL also plans on expanding its solar footprint across the county with two new solar fields, eventually erecting up to a million more solar panels, Sole said.

The new plan in no way signals a permanent delay to the additional reactors, Sole said. The utility postponed the reactors after construction costs at similar plants in Georgia and South Carolina soared and forced Westinghouse, the company that designs and builds the reactors, into bankruptcy. FPL has said it’s watching the progress at the other plants to decide how to move forward.

fpl rendering of water treatment plant
Florida Power & Light produced this artist rendering of a possible water treatment plant built near Turkey Point to provide treated wastewater to freshen cooling canals attached to two nuclear reactors and cool a gas-powered generator. Florida Power & Light

By using reclaimed wastewater for the cooling canals, FPL also hopes to offset criticism from environmentalists who sued to have the canals fixed and have criticized the use of water from the brackish Floridan aquifer and freshwater from nearby canals. That water, they argued, should instead be used to restore Florida’s bays and Everglades marshes damaged by years of flood control.

Even with additional water, the canals could continue to feed the salt front, Reynolds said. So far, FPL has pumped 3.7 billion gallons of salty water west of the canals into the boulder zone, but Reynolds said that does nothing to address pollution in Biscayne Bay.

“There should be a three-part cleanup plan that includes abatement, remediation and mitigation,” Reynolds said. “They’re only cleaning up the legacy plume to the west. They’re not dealing w pollution in Biscayne Bay.”

The proposed new facility would be able to treat up to 60 million gallons of wastewater a day, enough to generate 45 million gallons a day of usable water. Up to 15 million gallons would be used daily to cool the natural gas unit and 30 million gallons for the canals. That would eliminate the need for any well water, Sole said.

The new plant falls well below the state’s goal of 117 million gallons, and also short of the 90 million gallons that would have been used in a cooling tower. The difference may be made up by a new west district plant that includes treatment, Sola said. The FPL plant could also be built to expand treatment, although Sole said FPL would not pay for treatment that doesn’t benefit the power plant since costs will be passed on to the utility’s customers.

heron cooling canal
A Great Blue Heron flies over cooling canals at Turkey Point that cover about 5,900 acres and help run two aging reactors. In 2014, after the utility uprated the reactors to produce more power, temperatures in the canals increased, making them saltier and worsening an underground saltwater plume threatening nearby drinking water supplies. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Using treated wastewater to cool reactors is becoming more common as power companies struggle to find the massive amounts of water they require, said Dave Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project.

“If Turkey Point uses wastewater, it won’t be the first time a nuclear plant has that role,” he said.

It’s also a fairly economical fix, he said, with construction costs easily recovered by more reliable operation since plants frequently power down when temperatures soar. In 2014, high canal temperatures caused FPL to power down several times.

Treatment technology has also improved as more plants look for more sources as they extend operations on aging plants. Up to 80 percent of the nation’s fleet have obtained extensions, extending reactor use to 60 years, Lochbaum said

But it’s also only a temporary fix since ultimately reactors will shut down, he said. Of the more than four dozen plants that have extended operating licenses, seven have shut down or will shut down well before the new extension runs out, he said.

The Turkey Point cooling canals began to run hot after FPL uprated its reactors to produce more power. Environmentalists warned that the saltier canals would worsen an underground plume as the heavier saltwater spread underground, which FPL long denied. In 2016, state environmental regulators finally cited the utility after repeated complaints and tritium, a tracer in nuclear reactor water, turned up in Biscayne Bay, likely spread by underground springs.

State officials gave FPL 10 years to clean up the plume, which it plans to do by using wells to scoop up heavy saltwater and dump it in injection wells. The utility is now in the midst of a $200 million cleanup, a tab paid mostly by utility customers.

The cost of the new facility will likely be determined by the technology and level of water treatment needed, which could be stringent. Across the state, newer communities have been able to meet the state water reuse goals by installing purple reuse pipes during new construction. Almost all use their water for irrigating lawns, golf courses or farm fields.

reuse pipe construction
Miami-Dade wants to increase the fees for a consulting firm overseeing a massive redo of the county’s sewage system. The entire job is expected to cost nearly $2 billion. South Florida Water Management District

Miami-Dade’s older sewer treatment system, however, was designed around ocean outfall pipes. Ripping up roads and laying pipes now would be far too expensive.

Water could also be used to help with Everglades restorations projects like a plan to fix wetlands along Biscayne Bay. But to qualify, the water must be nearly free of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Deputy water and sewer director Doug Yoder said it’s possible to get levels to nearly zero, but that comes with a price.

“The question really is what is the most cost-effective way to do it,” he said.

Environmental groups, including the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida, called the plan a “win-win” by relying on wasted water rather than natural resources. Sole sits on the Everglades Foundation board of directors.

In addition to the water plan, Gimenez and FPL have also agreed to work on installing a million solar panels in the county, enough to cover the government’s electricity’s needs, or provide power for 45,000 customers.

FPL has so far won approval for a 74 megawatt solar facility off Krome Avenue. The 223 megawatts produced by the additional panels could help the county power part of the Metrorail line and provide solar stations on a new transit plan intended to draw development around traffic corridors, said Jennifer Moon, Miami-Dade’s budget director. The agreement also includes more electric vehicle charging stations, she said. The utility will also look at building floating solar fields on water retention ponds and installing batteries to provide more round-the-clock coverage.

“We could be the first county that has enabled the implementation of renewable energy to match our energy needs,” Moon said. “It won’t happen in the next year. But they’re exciting opportunities.”

County commissioners are set to discuss the plan Feb. 8, with a full plan ready for a vote by 2019.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich