Regulators are not protecting the environment

For Florida Power & Light to downplay the contamination at its aging Turkey Point nuclear reactors is self-serving and misses the point. Why should customers take any solace in FPL’s “Trust us — we’ll fix it” approach when the reactors’ cooling canal system has been leaking for years, and most recently has been made worse by FPL itself?

The Turkey Point power plant is a sprawling complex with two nuclear reactors located a few miles south of Miami and owned and operated by FPL. Turkey Point is the only nuclear power plant in the United States located on the borders of two national parks. It has a cooling canal system that is different from any other nuclear power plant cooling system in the country.

The leaking industrial wastewater facility is not a new problem. But recently new data revealed a direct connection from the groundwater plume to the surface waters of Biscayne National Park. A recent Miami-Dade County report and an ongoing University of Miami study found elevated levels of tritium, which is a radioactive isotope that comes from nuclear power production, in groundwater up to 4.7 miles west of the facility and up to 2.1 miles east.

Water is the lifeblood of South Florida. These unpermitted releases of wastewater pose a danger to Miami-Dade’ssole source drinking-water resource, the Biscayne Aquifer, and to the fragile ecosystem of Biscayne National Park. The leak is exacerbating saltwater intrusion toward Miami-Dade drinking-water wells. South Florida communities everywhere are struggling to contain saltwater intrusion — when saltwater moves inland, underground toward drinking water well sources. The reactors’ cooling canal system is loading at least 600,000 pounds of salt per day into our drinking water resource.

The leaking pollutants to the east into Biscayne National Park poses a danger to the park’s sensitive ecosystem. Radioactive tritium has been found in surface waters surrounding Turkey Point since 2010. FPL should have seen this coming — it’s been ongoing for decades. Instead of working to stop the leaks, mitigate the damages and find new cooling technologies that use our precious water resources more efficiently without loading salt directly into the aquifer, the company accelerated the reactor output. Now they run longer and work harder.

By adding billions of gallons of water in 2015 and adding over 8 cubic feet of weight to the top of the cooling canals, FPL has flushed the pollution in a large pulse from inside the cooling canals and the groundwater into the surface waters of Biscayne National Park. The levels of tritium have been recorded at thousands of times higher than what normal background levels should be.

The so-called reactor “uprates” came with a cost. FPL customers picked up the bill for these uprates in the amount of over $2 billion. Since the uprates, FPL has not been able to keep the temperature in the cooling canals at an acceptable level — scrambling to comply with environmental and Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements to keep the reactors from shutting down.

FPL sold the reactor uprates as a good deal for customers to the Florida Public Service Commission. Ultimately, FPL customers will foot the bill for this gross mismanagement of our natural resources and public water supply.

The unfortunate irony is that FPL is now requesting a rate increase from that same commission. The base rate for customers would increase by 23.7 percent by 2019 and totals over $1.3 billion. The typical FPL customer bill will increase by $15 per month. In its request, FPL is requesting to raise its profit to 11.5 percent because of its alleged record of “superior quality.”

It’s stunning that the company would request more profit at the same time its Turkey Point reactors are leaking pollutants. Moreover, FPL wants to add two new proposed reactors — for which its customers are already footing the bill. Is it a good idea to allow this utility to expand a troubled industrial facility abutting a national park to the east and drinking water wells to the west in the face of sea-level rise?

Where are the regulators who should be protecting us and the environment? The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy plans to do everything in its power to hold FPL to the high standards necessary to protect the national park, our waters and our drinking water. FPL customers don’t want more promises about fixing the continuing problem at Turkey Point, they want action. It’s time we put customers and the environment over profit.

Laura Reynolds, former executive director of Tropical Audubon, is a consultant representing Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.