By Rachel Silverstein, Miami Waterkeeper
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently granted the world’s first 80-year operating license to Miami’s Turkey Point nuclear reactor – that’s 40 years longer than the plant was ever meant to operate. While there are environmental concerns, this is, first and foremost, an issue of safety.
In the past year alone, three staff members were fired for forging safety inspections, and the plant experienced four unplanned shutdowns, or “scrams” — a disconcerting series of events that led the NRC to take the rare step of downgrading Turkey Point’s safety rating. Turkey Point is now one of only three reactors (out of almost 100 operating nationwide) to have received that ignominious distinction. As Turkey Point’s neighbors, this should alarm us.
Built in the 1970s by Florida Power & Light (FPL) — at a time when the world’s most powerful computers contained about as much storage capacity as a Casio watch — Turkey Point is the NRC’s first foray into this high-stakes game of nuclear roulette. The NRC’s extended license will allow the Turkey Point reactor to continue limping along through 2052. No nuclear plant anywhere in the world has ever operated that long, and the plant — with its Cold War technology, Cold War design and Cold War engineering — was never intended to do so.
If you live in South Florida, you likely know all about the crippling deficiencies that have hampered this aging plant for the past decade or so. It is uncontested, even by FPL, that the reactor’s cooling system — a giant, radiator-like series of unlined canals that’s not used in any other plant in the United States — has been leaking into Miami’s drinking-water supply; this contamination, in turn, has made it difficult for the reactor to tap into a reliable source of fresh water — without which the scalding reactor cannot properly cool itself.
South Florida, of course, gets hurricanes, and Turkey Point — like the Japanese reactor at Fukushima — sits precariously right on the water’s edge, with a growing population of more than 3 million people living less than 25 miles away. Now layer on the NRC’s refusal to consider realistic sea-level rise projections.
Instead of trusting federal government recommendations to plan critical infrastructure for at least 6 feet of sea-level rise by 2100, the NRC, instead, is accepting FPL’s own internal estimate: just one foot of sea-level rise by 2100.
Even the least severe government projections (as calculated by University of Florida mapping tools) predict that the cooling system will be underwater by 2040 — 12 years before this new license is set to expire.
Given the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima —that the costs of nuclear meltdowns are essentially infinite — should this unaccountable administrative agency really get to ignore key science from other federal agencies? This is why citizen groups such as mine and our partners have been challenging this license through the NRC’s administrative court system.
But the NRC granted this unprecedented license to FPL before our appeal had even been decided, let alone heard by a federal judge.
In doing so, the agency has seriously curtailed judicial oversight of the executive branch. Considering the close relationship between the nuclear industry and the NRC, it’s no surprise that the NRC has never — not once — refused to extend a nuclear reactor’s operating license.
Our community deserves to have all the facts about Turkey Point and its safety considerations. Reach out to our representatives to get answers to these important questions:
Who is in charge of a cleanup if the canals or the plant is inundated? What is FPL’s plan for dealing with sea-level rise? What is Plan B for providing energy to this region if the plant can no longer operate? What does this alarming safety-rating downgrade mean for us?
Our country, in short, doesn’t need limitless license extensions for flood-prone, leaking, vulnerable nuclear plants. What we need instead is to unleash American scientific and technical ingenuity to engineer the renewable-energy solutions of the future — and the regulatory support to foster the emergence of these new solutions.
This commentary first appeared in The Miami Herald.
Rachel Silverstein, Ph.D., is executive director and waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper, a South Florida-based non-profit organization with a mission to ensure swimmable, drinkable, fishable, water.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.