The aging network of canals that cool Miami-Dade’s nuclear power plant has long been a lightning rod for legal challenges from environmentalists, especially after it spawned a massive underground plume of saltwater that threatened South Florida’s drinking water.
But Florida Power & Light has once again won state approval to continue operating the system. Last week, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection renewed Florida Power and Light’s permit, formally ending a 2-year legal challenge by Monroe County, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority and the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association.
FKAA, which supplies drinking water for Monroe County with a well field ten miles west of the cooling canals, argued that the state’s permit didn’t do a good enough job protecting the drinking water supply from the super salty plume spreading west from the plant. The Fishing Guide Association said the plant was contaminating Biscayne Bay to the east, spoiling the national park and interrupting their livelihoods.
Administrative Law Judge Cathy Sellers had cleared the way in February, issuing a 125-page ruling finding that the environmental arguments weren’t strong enough and ruled that FPL was doing enough to protect the water around it. Sellers wrote that reissuing the permit “is in the public interest.”
Saltwater plume vs drinking water
FPL first installed the unique cooling canals in 1973, which evaporate the hot, salty water used to cool down the nuclear plant. Decades of evaporating salty water in unlined concrete canals led to an underground plume of super concentrated saltwater that threatened drinking water supplies for the Keys and Miami-Dade. The utility also struggled with rising temperatures and algae blooms in the canals that reduced the cooling capacity
READ MORE: FPL wants injection wells at Turkey Point. It could also help Miami-Dade’s wastewater woes
After pressure from the state, FPL agreed to clean up the excess saltwater by pumping it out of the groundwater and shooting it deep below the aquifer that contains our drinking water. The utility is three years into its ten-year cleanup plan, and a November status report suggests it’s on track to retract the western spread of the plume.
DEP’s new permit includes few updates from the most recent cooling canal permit in 2005. Most of the changes are repeats of things FPL already agreed to in its cleanup plan with the state, like installing more groundwater monitoring wells.
The new permit also requires FPL to produce a best management practices plan to prevent pollutants from the nuclear plant from contaminating the water used in the cooling canals. FPL did not immediately respond to a request for comment on when that plan will be released.
FPL’s license extension
Environmental advocates have pushed to decommission the cooling canals for years. Turkey Point is the only plant in the world that still uses them, while all other plants now use more modern cooling systems like towers.
Another looming threat is sea level rise. The bayfront cooling canals are about a foot above sea level, and that much rise is expected in South Florida in the next few decades. The new permit does not address that concern, and FPL has argued it is fully prepared for the higher seas and stronger storms associated with climate change.
NRC puts license extension for Turkey Point on hold, calls for new environmental review
When the saltwater plume was first noticed, Miami-Dade County’s Commission passed a resolution asking FPL to switch to a more modern water cooling system by 2033, when the license for the twin nuclear reactors expires.
FPL has not indicated an interest in switching to new technology, and two years after that resolution, won permission from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend the lifespan of its two reactors another 20 years, to 2053.
In a rare move, the NRC recently undid that decision, effectively withdrawing the license extension and sending FPL back to the drawing board.
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