Tech

Is This Aging South Florida Power Plant a Disaster Waiting to Happen?

Critics say that the Turkey Point facility is in danger thanks to rising sea levels and four decades of wear and tear.

by ​Jon Silman
Jun 5 2015, 5:20pm

The Turkey Point Generating Station. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Philip Stoddard keeps a bottle of a radiation sickness medicine called potassium iodide in a safe place in his home.

Just in case.

Just in case the sea rises as much as scientists predict, or a hurricane barrels through Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, the nuclear power plant about 20 miles south of Miami, breaching its walls and overrunning its ancillary equipment.

Stoddard is not a typical doomsday conspiracy theorist, but a three-term mayor of South Miami and a local college professor. Those disaster scenarios are real possibilities, not just because of climate change, but because the plant is operating beyond its intended lifespan and capacity, according to local news reports and experts interviewed for this article.

Stoddard claims that everyone from the plant's operators in South Florida to the state's leadership in Tallahassee is in some stage of denial about the potential dangers of global climate change. That includes Florida's Governor, Rick Scott, who has reportedly banned the words "climate change" from being used by state employees.

Whatever terms you use to describe it, it's hard to deny that sea level rise is coming—and probably faster than predicted.

The implications are obvious and devastating. If the water rises, homes, buildings and businesses will be flooded, wreaking havoc and forcing an exodus of millions. Seawater would seep through South Florida's porous limestone foundation, pushing out all the freshwater and devastating the environment worse than any oil spill ever could.

"We're talking (a devastating loss of) food and a massive movement of people. We're talking disasters," Pete Harlem, a geologist at Florida International University, told VICE. "The ramifications are huge. It's maddening, and we have a governor who doesn't want to use the words, and our local senator (Marco Rubio) who's down here saying he's not a scientist, like, 'I don't know shit.' He's admitting his own stupidity."

What's most frustrating for experts like Mayor Stoddard and Harlem is the nagging feeling that nobody is listening.

Not to them, anyway. Money, of course, is a different story. All along the beach—known for the neon and stringed bathing wear of its denizens—contractors keep building like tomorrow isn't a thing. The money grab is blind to safety concerns, at least environmentally. Miami Beach is trying its best to straddle the line, pushing development to generate property tax revenue, which it will use to build pumps to suck out the seawater.

That seems like a shortsighted, expensive solution to Harlem and Stoddard, who say the best fix—their fix—would be to depopulate and move people out. But that's not happening any time soon.

So how bad is it? In 2008, Harlem made maps to chart the potential effects of sea level rise. According to his projections, by 2120 the sea will have risen by six feet, leaving just 44 percent of the eastern part of South Florida above the water—and by 2159, that number will have shrunk to only 3 percent.

In South Miami, Stoddard is on the front lines, watching the flooding and rising tides scrape city streets.

"We have enough heat in the ocean to put about 60 feet of water under us," he said. "And the slower it happens the better off it is. People need time to change what they're doing. If we got 16 feet tomorrow everybody would die. What we really need to do is start depopulating the area slowly and gradually."

Harlem agrees.

"Everyone's looking short-term," he said. "My concern is that when I look at this stuff as a geologist, it's not a big deal to look at 100 years from now. But it's 25 and 30 years. How do we get these political entities to create solutions to carry us through, when all they look at is the short-term business cycle?"

In a joint statement from the governor's office and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, I was told that there was a five-year project underway to evaluate sea level rise and "vulnerability assessments" in "two pilot communities."

"DEP will examine current water level monitoring protocols and engage local, state, and federal partners to determine the most effective way to monitor sea level changes," spokesperson Dee Ann Miller said. "In addition, the agency will administer the Salinity Monitoring Network, and will continue to address beach erosion through its beach restoration and nourishment program." (The Salinity Monitoring Network is used to measure how much seawater is coming into the environment. A recent study by the United States Geological Survey said it's flawed, and didn't do enough to accurately record where the saltwater is coming from.)

Perhaps the most eye-opening perspective on the topic comes from a 2014 report by the Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force, which was created by the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners.

"Sea Level Rise is an inevitable consequence of the warming of the oceans and the accelerated melting of the planet's ice sheets—regardless of cause," writes Task Force Chairperson Harvey Ruvin. "It is a measurable, trackable and relentless reality. Without innovative adaptive capital planning it will threaten trillions of dollars of the region's built environment, our future water supply, our unique natural resources, our agricultural soils, and our basic economy."

The report recommends the government speed up the adaption planning process and come up with a "robust capital plan."

As Stoddard does, it warns of the dangers of storm surges, which are just one of many threats to the Turkey Point power plant, which was built in the 1970s, before climate change was even a concern.

On Motherboard: The DIY Engineer Who Built a Nuclear Reactor in His Basement

Nuclear plants have huge stainless steel reactors where atoms are split, a process that unleashes a tremendous amount of heat to produce electricity. In the event of a shutdown, the reactors still need to cool for a long period of time, so a system of pumps circulate water. If the pumps go down, there are backup diesel generators, like the system that failed when they were overrun with water in the nuclear disaster that hit Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

Another danger comes from the radioactive material itself, or fuel rods, which is stored in cool water on site. If the buildings are breached, the heat from the fuel rods could cause explosions and release more dangerous radioactive materials.

Sea level rise makes disasters more likely, Stoddard said, because the higher the water, the worse the danger of a storm surge breaching the walls and overrunning the diesel generators. It could pick up debris and smash through barriers. In addition, even just three feet of water could maroon the plant as an island. Imagine, he said, the logistical difficulties of containing an accident in those types of conditions.

"How would you get folks to work in the morning? A boat? Suppose there's a storm surge," Stoddard suggested, adding that a nuclear island probably isn't a good idea.

Florida Power and Light (FPL), the state's premier power company, seemed to suggest in a statement that sea level rise isn't a major concern for the current facility.

Greg Brostowicz, an FPL spokesman, told VICE that "based on our conservative projections, we have concluded that sea level rise is not a concern for the cooling canal system." In fact, FPL is planning to build two new reactors by 2027 and 2028, and the company will construct those in anticipation of climate change.

There are a few issues at work here. The power plant is old, and operating beyond its originally intended 40-year life. In 2002, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the reactors to operate for an additional 20 years—extending one's lifespan to 2032 and the other's to 2033.

FPL says the licensing review process takes years and is extremely conservative in its approach. But Stoddard told VICE that the NRC relaxed the standards for reactor decay—also known as embrittlement—twice, and if they hadn't, the plant would no longer be open.

Thomas Saporito worked at Turkey Point for three years. He's a former instrument control technician and a safety whistleblower at nuclear power plants in Florida, Arizona, and Texas who now works as a consultant and nuclear power watchdog. He's basically dedicated himself to trumpeting the risks of the nuclear industry.

"To fully understand the enormous danger in operating a nuclear reactor beyond its 40-year safety design basis," he wrote in an email, "you need to understand that during power operations, billions of radioactive neutrons constantly bombard the inside of the reactor vessel, which is made of stainless steel. This constant neutron bombardment embrittles the vessel."

Think about what happens if you heat a regular drinking glass in the oven, over and over again: It would weaken structurally. Now imagine throwing cold water on it. It would probably crack. This, Saporito said, is the danger.

Currently, the plant uses surrounding canals to cool the reactors, but even the standards of those had to be relaxed, raising their maximum allowed temperature from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 104. In other words, the reactors made the water so hot regulators had to raise the threshold.

Location is another obvious contention point. The plant is in a spot prone to hurricanes and storm surges. FPL said it took a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but Stoddard argues they got a surge off the coast, and not a direct one. Hurricane Andrew had blasts of up to 17 feet, and Stoddard said that despite FPL's claims that the plant is 20 feet above sea level, maps made by an FIU professor show it's actually closer to between 11 and 16 feet, and that a surge of that size could inundate 80 to 95 percent of the property.

South Florida, according to Stoddard, is completely unprepared for that eventuality.

Residents within ten miles of the plant get a safety brochure and are told to either evacuate or stay in their homes. There are no drills. Close windows and listen to the radio, the brochure suggests, and watch TV for further instructions.

A meltdown would happen quickly, and potentially without warning. Even worse, Stoddard thinks the ten-mile evacuation zone is completely arbitrary.

"They limited it to a small enough (area) to where they could evacuate them," he said. "They have this idea that they'll make all the roads northbound."

He goes on to describe all the things that would have to go right in order to facilitate an orderly evacuation.

"They imagine that State Troopers will direct traffic with no radiation protection, ignoring their own families. They assume it'll be safe and that people will behave in an orderly fashion, and that they'll somehow be able to give all the young people (radiation medicine)."

For people living in this part of South Florida, uprooting their lives and moving to escape a potential future nuclear disaster or the rise of the ocean is obviously a drastic step. Stoddard isn't leaving, but he's still got that radiation sickness medicine, just in case.

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