The Turkey Point nuclear power plant has moved a key step closer to receiving a 20-year extension to remain in operation through 2050, after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a favorable environmental impact statement Monday.
In 2018, Florida Power & Light became the first power company in the U.S. to apply for a second 20-year extension for two reactors. If granted, the reactors would be operating twice as long as the original 40-year license. Federal regulators have previously extended the lifespan of Turkey Point’s two reactors, which went into operation in 1972 and 1973, granting a first 20-year extension in 2002.
FPL’s application could have implications well beyond Turkey Point and will likely influence the fate of the other 90 or so nuclear reactors in the U.S., many built in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It literally is something our agency has never done before,” an NRC spokesperson told the Herald in 2018.
The NRC’s 656-page environmental impact statement assessed a variety of issues such as groundwater contamination and the impact of sea level rise on the plant, which is located on south Biscayne Bay east of Homestead. It concluded that “the adverse environmental impacts of subsequent license renewal for Turkey Point are not so great that preserving the option of license renewal for energy-planning decisionmakers would be unreasonable.”
Most potential impacts on the surrounding environment, including groundwater and aquatic resources, were classified as “small to moderate.”
More than a dozen energy production alternatives to extending the two nuclear reactors were dismissed by the NRC in the report. Wind and solar power were nixed because the NRC was not confident either could fully replace the energy produced by the reactors. One alternative that is still being considered by the NRC would be to build a new natural gas power plant and four solar power plants.
Peter Robbins, FPL’s director of nuclear communications, issued a statement that “we look forward to continuing the process of extending the operating licenses at Turkey Point, enabling us to continue to produce reliable, emissions-free electricity for future generations.”
Environmental advocates have long raised concerns over Turkey Point’s unique cooling system, a massive network of canals that is the only one of its kind in the U.S. Many nuclear power plants rely on cooling towers to prevent overheating, and advocates have pushed for FPL to switch to a system they argue would reduce impacts on Miami-Dade’s drinking water supply, Biscayne Bay and surrounding wetlands.
Millions of gallons of salt water from the 5,900-acre canal network have seeped into aquifers beneath the canals. An underground saltwater plume has spread more than 10.6 miles inland, county officials have reported. In 2014, the plant also battled hot temperatures and algae blooms that threatened to shut down the reactors. A few years ago, radioactive isotopes, tracers that are considered harmless to human health, were found in Biscayne Bay.
Since 2016, FPL has been under court order from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to contain the spreading plume and prevent contamination of the water supply within ten years.
The notice of the positive environmental report was sent just a few days after another important roadblock had been cleared for FPL.
On Oct. 24, the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board dismissed challenges to FPL’s assessment of environmental impacts from several advocacy groups, after hearing oral arguments in early September. Back in March, the NRC had approved a hearing over whether FPL had used adequate sea rise projections and had fully considered cooling towers in place of canals. These complaints can no longer be considered, the board ruled, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.
While FPL has undertaken efforts to reduce the saltwater plume, the company still relies on the problematic cooling canal system, argued Kelly Cox, general counsel at Miami Waterkeeper, one of the organizations that filed the environmental challenges.
“Until we are resolving the issue of pollution at its source, then all these sort of subsequent remediation efforts are just Band-Aids, they are not actually solving the problem itself,” Cox said.
Cox also pointed to Turkey Point’s proximity to Biscayne Bay and low lying peninsula, which she said made the facility susceptible to sea level rise and storm surges.
The environmental impact report accepted by the NRC anticipated that sea levels would rise between a half foot and a little over a foot by 2050, based on the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Estimates by the federal program have also put sea level rise as high as 4.3 feet by 2100.
But some organizations like Climate Central have noted the increasing odds of potential hurricane storm surge rising four feet above current high tides in the next few decades. The NRC addressed climate change in the environmental impact report but emphasized that speculation over future sea level rise went outside of its purview.
“The effects of climate change on Turkey Point ... structures, systems, and components are outside the scope of the NRC staff’s license renewal environmental review,” the impact report stated. “Site-specific environmental conditions are considered when siting nuclear power plants.”
Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesperson, said that NRC staff would continue to monitor and evaluate potential sea rise concerns. If projections appeared higher than anticipated in coming years, he said there would be time for the NRC to assess this information and take appropriate action because of the relatively slow rate of rising tides.
Critics of the plant argue that regulators are allowing an aging structure in a area vulnerable to weather extremes to continue to operate well past its original expiration date.
“The NRC is ignoring a multitude of risks by trying to fast track the extension of this plant, most importantly the threat of climate change and rising seas,” said Geoffrey Fettus, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups involved in the hearing. “A nuclear plant along the South Florida coast must fully grapple with the risks of rising seas and more powerful storms.”
Fettus said the Natural Resources Defense Council would “likely” appeal the NRC’s decision to quash the environmental complaints and that his organization would continue to fight to ensure that the risks of climate change are considered before an extension is granted.
FPL did not respond to requests for comment regarding sea level rise or groundwater pollution.
The NRC is currently reviewing the environmental impact statement and a safety evaluation report submitted by FPL in July before making a final decision, according to Burnell, the NRC spokesperson. A final decision on the 20-year extension would likely be reached later this year or next year, Burnell said.