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Nuclear regulators reverse Turkey Point operating license extensions

turkey_point.jpeg
Emily Michot
/
Miami Herald
Nuclear regulators reversed license extensions that would have allowed Turkey Point's reactors to continue operating through the 2050s and reset the expiration date to the 2030s, the expiration on the current licenses.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reversed its decision to extend the operating licenses for Florida Power & Light’s two Turkey Point nuclear reactors for another 30 years and instead reset the clock to the existing expiration date a decade away.

In its order released Thursday, regulators say they relied on outdated environmental information when they issued the extensions in 2019.

“There is no technical basis in the 1996 [environmental study] or the 2013 [environmental study] upon which to conclude that operational years 60 through 80 would have the same environmental impacts as operational years 40 through 60,” the order said.

The 1970s era reactors would have become the oldest in operation in the U.S. under the extensions. The reactors face a litany of environmental concerns, from rising sea levels near the bayfront plant to an underground saltwater plume created by the plants troubled cooling canals.

“No one's ever run a nuclear power plant for 80 years before,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper. “We need to be considering any and all factors that could be affecting the operation of the plant, especially in the context of sea level rise, the groundwater contamination coming from the plant and the downgraded safety rating that Turkey Point now has.”

Miami Waterkeeper, along with Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sued to have the extensions overturned.

In response to an email, FPL said the NRC decision does not affect current operations.

“The decisions affect the NRC’s environmental review for plant operations in the future, starting in 2032,” spokesperson Bill Orlove wrote. “We are evaluating the NRC’s decisions to determine our next steps in the license renewal process.”

The Turkey Point reactors were the first in the nation’s aging nuclear fleet to seek another round of license extensions beyond the initial 20-year extensions and were considered a test case for others. Extensions for reactors at another plant in Pennsylvania, which were approved after Turkey Point's were granted, were also reversed until an updated environmental study can be done.

The extension for third plant plant in Virginia granted last year stands because no one ever challenged it. And a South Carolina plant currently undergoing a license renewal, along with any future renewal requests, will need to adhere to the commission's order.

FPL had planned to build two new reactors approved in 2018, but shelved the plans after construction of similar reactors at other plants ran into problems. Instead, they moved to extend the life of the reactors, which are now operating under 20-year license extensions granted in 2013.

The reversals are a rare move by the nuclear regulatory commission that oversees the nation’s fleet of nearly 100 reactors.

In his decision to revise the extension, commission chairman Christopher Hanson wrote: “Overturning a recent decision by my colleagues on the Commission, whom I deeply respect, is not something I have undertaken lightly. After much consideration, I believe this is the best course of action.”

The decision was also not unanimous. Commissioner David Wright called the reversal arbitrary.

“This reversal, based only on information and arguments previously considered and rejected, undermines the NRC’s role as an effective and credible regulator,” he said.

The decision by the three commissioners — two seats remain vacant — rested on the outdated information and a staff reading of rules governing environmental studies. The staff had interpreted the rules to mean that generic studies completed years ago could be recycled for subsequent license renewals. But in their order, commissioners made clear that environmental assessments were tied to specific extensions.

“The regulatory analysis is not the regulation and cannot be used to change the plain meaning of the regulation,” the commission wrote. “Moreover, we cannot interpret our regulations in a manner that conflicts with our [national environmental policy] responsibilities … We cannot retroactively decide that the [previous environmental study] covered impacts of subsequent license renewal.”

Commissioners said the “ambiguous phrasing” of the rule failed to clearly inform the public of its intention. They went on to say the original rules clearly stated that environmental studies could not be reused, saying FPL’s argument that studies could be reapplied “does not make sense.”

For critics, the new analysis provides an opportunity to update sea level rise projections and other concerns. FPL had estimated sea level rise of just three-quarters of a foot by 2100 when it presented the study to the NRC in 2018. At the time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called for 5 feet and 6.75 feet.

Last week, NOAA issued new sea level rise projections, saying up to a foot and a half of sea rise around South Florida is now unavoidable by 2050.

The plant's cooling canals, which helped fuel an underground saltwater plume threatening drinking water supplies, are also undergoing a massive clean-up effort. The plant also relies on a limited freshwater supply in South Dade's low-lying region to freshen cooling canals.

“I would certainly feel better if FPL said, ‘Oh, you want us to plan for six feet of sea level rise by 2100? We're going to plan for 25 feet of sea level rise by 2100, and we're going to be prepared for anything.’” Silverstein said. “I think that would make us feel a lot more comfortable about the point continuing to operate into the 2050s.”

NRC regulators have asked FPL and their critics to submit responses on what the reversal could mean for the reactors’ ongoing operations by the end of March.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that a South Carolina plant will have its renewal license reversed. The Oconee application is currently ongoing.

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.