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Nuclear regulators to hear arguments over relicensing aging Turkey Point reactors

Emily Michot
Miami Herald
South Florida’s aging nuclear reactors at Turkey Point come before a panel of regulatory judges Wednesday to determine how sea level rise and a litany of other problems surrounding the plant get factored into ongoing operations.

South Florida’s aging nuclear reactors at Turkey Point come before a panel of regulatory judges Wednesday to determine how sea level rise and a litany of other problems surrounding the plant get factored into ongoing operations.

The hearing comes after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a rare reversal in 2022 and suspended operating extensions that could have kept the reactors running through mid century and making them the nation's oldest.

Miami Waterkeeper, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth, petitioned to have the extensions overturned. They argued the license renewals relied on an outdated look at sea level rise and ignored other environmental concerns, including an underground saltwater plume spreading from cooling canals and threatening drinking water supplies.

READ MORE: Nuclear regulators reverse Turkey Point operating license extensions

Commissioners agreed, finding Florida Power & Light and NRC staff incorporated decade-old environmental studies that only contemplated reactor operations until 2030 and 2032.

As part of that decision, commissioners granted the public the chance to ask for additional hearingsand take another stab at environmental concerns. Wednesday’s oral arguments will give all sides a chance to make their case.

“(Wednesday) you're going to hear the legal discussion from FPL, from Miami Waterkeeper, from the NRC staff as to whether or not the matters that Miami Waterkeeper are raising require further attention and a full hearing,” said NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell.

In their petition for the hearing, Waterkeeper argued the most recent look at environmental risks posed by the reactors and a 4,000-acre network of cooling canals again underestimate the looming problems from climate change including rising temperatures and worsening hurricanes. They also say the impact of ongoing efforts to stop a saltwater plume seeping from cooling canals and into groundwater and Biscayne Bay is not fully factored into the assessment.

“To accept NRC’s position that groundwater impacts caused by the [cooling canal] operations …will be small or moderate, the [NRC] board must likewise accept — contrary to all evidence — that pumping as much as 1,033.6 million gallons of brackish water into the unlined [cooling canals], every month, for 20 years, to achieve seawater salinity levels will not perpetuate or exacerbate saltwater intrusion into the Biscayne Aquifer,” Waterkeeper argued. “Such a conclusion is unfounded.”

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The group also criticized the agency’s take on updated sea level rise projections because it again updated the most recent data.

“They are treating [federal environmental rules] as a box checking exercise, rather than taking a hard look at cumulative impacts associated with sea level rise,” they wrote.

The 1970s era reactors are the oldest in operation in the U.S. fleet and the first in a wave of requests to extend operations. So far, a half dozen have asked for a second round of license renewals.

Nuclear regulators initially granted the Turkey Point extensions in 2019, but then suspended extensions. The suspensions do not affect current operations, but could determine how FPL deals with sea rise and potential impacts to groundwater.

In response to questions, FPL said it had provided clean, zero-emission energy to South Florida for decades and praised its clean-up efforts to shrink the plume.

“FPL’s efforts have greatly reduced the salinity levels in the cooling canal system since 2018. The most recent average annual salinity in the canals is slightly less than seawater and the lowest annual level in 45 years,” FPL said in a statement. “Nearly 30 billion gallons have been removed through the first five years of our efforts and the westward migration of concentrated saltwater has essentially ceased.”

However, in its most recent update to Miami-Dade County, FPL reported it was unlikely to fully retract the plume within the 10-year timeframe set by the consent order it struck with the county after county regulators found canal water had polluted Biscayne Bay. In an effort to improve efforts, county officials said Tuesday FPL is now proposing increasing the amount of salty water extracted from the plume to 22 millions gallons a day from 15 million gallons. That water is flushed deep into the boulder zone. The proposal is under review, officials said.

The plant is the only nuclear facility in the U.S. to use cooling canals as a kind of radiator to keep reactors from overheating. The canals were created after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency objected to FPL plans to use Biscayne Bay, pulling cooling water from the bay and then flushing back after it circulated outside the reactors. Instead, FPL carved up about 4,000 acres or wetlands to create the cooling canals.

As energy demand increased and FPL began importing more electricity, it overhauled the reactors to produce 15 percent more power. In 2014, temperatures began climbing in the canals and renewed scrutiny of the unusual cooling system. In plans to build two new reactors, FPL vowed to use less damaging cooling towers. But after it received the license renewal, the utility shelved the plans for the new reactors.

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Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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