Judges for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission heard arguments on Tuesday over whether to prolong the lives of two nuclear reactors at Turkey Point that are already approaching a half-century in service — an important test case of how long the nation’s aging nuclear power plants will continue to operate.
Solar activists and environmentalists oppose extending the reactor licenses until the early 2050s, citing threats from climate change to the plant along southern Biscayne Bay and ongoing problems with troubled cooling canals that keep the reactors working. The 5,900-acre radiator-like network of canals, the only such system in the nation used to cool reactors, has leaked into the bay and threatened nearby drinking water supplies. Florida Power & Light has been ordered by the state to clean up the canals and is in the midst of a 10-year, $200 million fix.
FPL is the first power company in the U.S. to apply for a second 20-year extension for reactors, which if granted would double the lifespan of the original 40-year license. The two reactors went into commercial operation in 1972 and 1973 and the NRC approved an initial 20-year operating extension in 2002.
How regulators handle FPL’s application could set the tone for other companies considering extending the life of some 90 reactors built during the country’s nuclear revolution in the 1970s and 1980s. If approved, Turkey Point could become the longest-running in the nation, although it’s expected that operators of South Carolina’s Robinson plant, which opened two years earlier, will also ask to prolong licenses. In July, a Chicago-based utility also applied to extend operations at two Pennsylvania reactors built a year after Turkey Point.
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“It literally is something our agency has never done before,” said NRC spokesman Roger Hannah. In each renewal, judges will look at each application, “but judges also look at what previous panels have done.”
During the daylong Homestead hearing, challengers to the extension, including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Miami Waterkeeper and Friends of the Earth, argued that FPL failed to fully consider the problems caused by the cooling canals or potential impacts from increasing sea levels that could flood the canals or rising temperatures that could make them saltier and worsen an underground saltwater plume. Since problems were discovered, the plume has continued to spread and now, according to county officials, has moved more than 10.6 miles inland.
The canals drew increased scrutiny after they first began running hot in 2014 following an expansion at the plant to increase power output. For years, rock miners to the west had complained the canals were pushing an underground plume westward.
Two years later, Miami-Dade County environmental regulators found traces of tritium, a radioactive isotope used to track water near nuclear plants, in Biscayne Bay. The bay is considered among the state’s most pristine so has special protections.
That prompted a flurry of cleanup orders, including one from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to shrink the underground plume in 10 years.
Attorneys with FPL and the NRC argued Tuesday that those orders would ensure the canals meet environmental requirements, even if they continue operating through the 2050s under the relicensing plan. But opponents say FPL should consider replacing the canals with cooling towers, a new technology used at other plants, and that the NRC should force them to consider the option. A generic environmental assessment used to look at potential damage as part of the relicensing dates to 2013, they said, which predates new projections for sea rise and problems in the canals.
“It’s hard for me to imagine the NRC could legitimately say [the generic assessment] could apply to all subsequent renewals because that’s just a long time,” said Southern Alliance attorney Diana Curran. “They have to take another look at has the environment changed? Have the impacts changed? There’s issues related to aging reactors that they still don’t know.”
Curran said the group doesn’t oppose the extension, just the troubled cooling system.
But NRC attorneys say the agency is reluctant to order what it considers disproportionate solutions, likely costly cooling towers, to environmental issues. Of the 91 extensions it has ever considered over the years to prolong original 40-year licenses, it has only asked utilities to consider switching to cooling towers at three plants because the public outcry was so great, said NRC attorney Sherwin Turk.
“If you start by saying there’s a small impact, why would you think we need to address that with a very expensive method to redress that,” he said.
The three-judge panel, which included two nuclear scientists and an attorney, will now decide whether the nuclear agency and FPL need to include additional considerations, like the cooling towers, before moving forward. A more specific environmental assessment is also underway. That study will consider Turkey Point’s unique location and geography, which make it vulnerable to sea rise, as well as the canal’s role in spreading the saltwater plume and impacts on surrounding wetlands. It will also consider the nesting grounds for crocodiles that appeared after the canals were dug, which helped push the crocs off the endangered species list.
Once complete, the study will be open for public comment, and critics will have another chance to ask judges to weigh in on findings, although winning a chance at oral arguments like Tuesday’s hearing is rare.
The U.S. move to extend the life of the reactors is also something being watched by other countries. A Japanese reporter from the Asahi Shimbun, one of five national papers with a circulation of over 7 million readers, attended the hearing saying after Fukushima, construction of new reactors in his country has become very difficult. So relicensing efforts are gaining interest as one of the options to continue nuclear power.