Ever since Fukushima, nuclear plants in the path of massive storms have raised serious safety questions. Particularly when a plant, such as Florida Power and Light’s Turkey Point, has a poor safety record and a propensity to leak. Yet, with Irma bearing down, FPL’s public face is unconcerned.
Throughout Florida, Hurricane Irma – touted as a “once in a generation” storm – is causing widespread panic. More than 600,000 people have been ordered to evacuate amid concerns about the potential damage to buildings and infrastructure the Category 4 storm could cause. Though many coastal structures are certainly in danger, with Irma’s center expected to pass right over Miami, another grave danger posed by the storm is being ignored.
The Turkey Point nuclear power plant, located just 25 miles south of Miami, is in the direct path of Hurricane Irma, prompting the plant’s operator – Florida Power and Light (FPL) – to announce the temporary shutdown of the site on Thursday. FPL declined to specify the timing of the shutdown, according to local reports. FPL chief communications officer, Rob Gould, told reporters on Thursday that the Turkey Point site is “one of the safest and most robust structures in the state, if not the country” and that its reactors “are designed to withstand heavy wind and storm surge.”
However, Gould’s characterization of Turkey Point’s safety is at odds with the facts: as will be detailed, the threat of contamination persists in spite of the plant-wide shutdown.
A history of leaks and storm damage
While Turkey Point was originally built to withstand up to 235 mph winds, that was in 1974, over 40 years ago. Since it was built, the site has been damaged by major hurricanes such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which caused $90 million in damages to the site. This included significant damage to systems that were allegedly “hurricane-proof,” such as the site’s main water tank – which was completely destroyed – and the site’s water treatment plant. Turkey Point was left running on backup generators for a week to cool the shut-down reactors.
IRMA MAY KNOCK OUT POWER FOR WEEKS, FPL SPOKESMAN SAYS
— zerohedge (@zerohedge) September 7, 2017
Irma, by comparison, is expected to be significantly stronger than Andrew. Florida governor Rick Scott recently stated that Irma, compared to Andrew, is “much worse and more devastating on its current path.” Indeed, Irma is believed to have flattened 90% of all structures on the island of Barbuda and snapped every steel cell tower in half.
— Jonny Hallam (@Jonny_Hallam) September 6, 2017
Worse still, Turkey Point is considered one of the most hazardous nuclear power plants in the entire country, leaving aside its location in a hurricane-prone area. Turkey Point’s infrastructure, in the 25 years since Hurricane Andrew, has been caught failing on several occasions — particularly after its license renewal was “rubber-stamped” by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012, when its operating license expired.
The most recent failure was exposed last year when a government-sponsored University of Miami study found that Turkey Point had been leaking radioactive materials into the protected waters of Biscayne Bay for years. The study found high levels of radioactive isotopes present in the bay and the isotopes were found to have originated in the plant’s cooling canals. The leaks had raised the bay’s radioactivity levels to 215 times higher than normally found in seawater. Not only that, but the leaked radioactivity was found to be making its way towards wells that supply drinking water to millions of Florida residents. These leaks, of course, occurred in the course of normal operations and in the absence of any major hurricane.
In addition, the plant’s cooling canals have been a danger since 2013, when the plant sought to increase power output, causing dangerous increases in water temperatures inside the canals. Despite that, official nuclear regulators gave the plant permission to let cooling-canal temperatures reach 104 degrees – the highest allowed in any nuclear facility in the country.
According to Thomas Saporito, a former FPL employee who was fired for “blowing the whistle” on safety concerns at the plant, Turkey Point – more now than ever – is susceptible to a meltdown caused by a natural disaster like Irma. With regional power unavailable due to the shutdown, the plant will be relying on emergency diesel generators to pump the 650,000 gallons of water per minute needed to cool the reactors. Saporito has argued that those generators would “certainly” become inundated with water from the high waves caused by a storm like Irma, which would cause them to drown and fail.
Eyewall from historic hurricane very near Turkey Point nuclear plant on 12z GFS depiction. 60 foot waves. pic.twitter.com/WNKIwgJx7h
— Rob Soltysik (@soltysik_rob) September 5, 2017
Other workers at Turkey Point — and at FPL’s St. Lucie nuclear plant, also on Florida’s Atlantic coast — anonymously complained 160 times between 2005 and 2011, far higher than at plants in other areas of the country during that period. However, Saporito told the Miami New Times, FPL’s policy of retaliation against whistleblowers has prevented even more concerned workers from coming forward publicly.
Media quiet on Turkey Point dangers
By far the most troubling aspect of this situation is the lack of media coverage on the dangers posed by the Turkey Point plant in light of Irma’s anticipated path. Local news outlets have taken FPL at its word regarding the plant’s safety, despite FPL’s history of dishonesty and environmental violations at Turkey Point and elsewhere in Florida. Local reporting has also failed to mention Turkey Point’s history of leaks, including last year’s study about the dramatic increase in Biscayne Bay radioactivity caused by the plant’s faulty infrastructure.
This media mumness may be related to FPL’s pervasive influence in state politics. FPL is a major player, having contributed more than $7.5 million to state candidates, political parties and committees between the 2004 and 2012 election cycles, and spent another $4.7 million lobbying between 2007 and 2013, according to Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan research institute.
— Miles Grant (@MilesGrant) April 26, 2017
— MDEC (@MDECaucus) August 1, 2017
Top photo | The Turkey Point nuclear power plant, is shown in an aerial photo, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in Homestead, Fla. (AP/Wilfredo Lee)