Nuclear Florida, Beachfront reactors in an age of sea level rise

(Published at Counterpunch.com)  There is a reason Miami-Dade County in Southern Florida is the first place where America’s utility industry is moving forward with new nuclear capacity in three decades.

In Miami, Florida Power & Light found public officials malleable as silly putty, willing to allow a local agreement with a wink to substitute for solid facts that the public had the right to know: where the cooling water will come from at a time of chronic drought, where the water–more than 50 million gallons per day– will go when it is evaporated, and what will its effects be on public health and the environment.This is South Florida where “take the money and run” should be lettered just below the print, STOP, on traffic signs. 

Just gaze at the sprawl from the Florida Turnpike, where hundreds of acres of Mediterranean tile roofs shot up even as the housing bubble was collapsing. Under such conditions, why wouldn’t FPL be confident it can build new nuclear generating capacity at the edge of two national parks?

In the debate to move the Urban Development Boundary (today, the Miami-Dade county commission will vote whether to override Mayor Carlos Alvarez’ veto), there was input from county staff, apparently without question by elected officials, on the issue of the agreement between the state and county for new water sources.

The State of Florida has refused any more withdrawals from the Biscayne aquifer from municipalities and counties in South Florida. New water must be “made up” through industrial cleansing, polishing, and decontamination on a scale yet untested. No surprise, then, that the county’s point of view is that it has satisfied all requirements, (the promise of engineering and technology absorbs doubt like a paper towel) even though wastewater reuse facilities are a decade from being completed. And even though the effect of treated wastewater on nearby coastal wetlands and seagrass meadows will be unknown for another three to five years.

How little regard the county has for its commitment to the state is embedded in the fact that the issue of where FPL is going to get the water for its nuclear units never came up at all in the discussion about the Urban Development Boundary.

And yet ratepayers are already paying for FPL’s nuclear ambition.

FPL has answered its critics to date; we don’t know about the water supply. But someone does know. Today The Miami Herald reported that Westinghouse has been selected as the contractor of the new nuclear at Turkey Point–making the location one of the largest nuclear generation facilities in the world. Yet there has been no disclosure to the public of the design or the water input requirements. (The Herald did a considerable disservice to the public in failing to even mention the water supply question.) Miami Dade county environmental staff is in the dark, as is the State of Florida which is patiently waiting for data even as FPL puts more than $100 million to work in furtherance of its plan, supported by a surcharge to consumers, money that will be used in part to fund expected litigation by citizens and conservation groups.
Water managers know that water will be in chronically short supply in South Florida. They have forced Miami Dade county county commissioners to do what the commissioners would never do on their own: require the investment by taxpayers of billions of dollars to upgrade facilities including new wastewater reuse infrastructure.

If water for cooling electric utilities is the biggest component of the region’s water supply, and if a significant amount of water daily is going to be evaporated to cool the new reactors, why in God’s green earth would Miami-Dade and Florida approve FPL moving forward without telling the public exactly what the environmental costs will be?

You have only herons, manatees, panthers and crocodiles to complain. Who will defend them: federal agencies like the US Army Corps of Engineers that allow wetlands to be torn up for rock mines nearby?

FPL would like to make Biscayne National Park the model for the utility industry’s command over environmental regulations, but in doing so, it is turning itself into a prime example of the failed response by industry to the challenges of global warming.

The lowest hanging fruit in the quest for energy independence is conservation and efficiency improvements in electricity distribution. But government mandates at the state and the federal level have not caught up to this order of priority. Instead, utilities want to have their cake and eat it too: keep the model of growth based on units produced and use the threat of Mideast oil disruption and global warming to impose vast, new costs on public health and the environment. This is not about nuclear power: it is about personal wealth.

No utility executive yet has gone to jail for destroying the climate, and every utility executive is compensated with salary, options and bonuses based on growing the energy pool.

In South Florida, where government facilitates the effort by industry to plow platted subdivisions in watersheds critical for human enterprise and restoration of the Everglades, you have a good chance of putting radioactive materials that will be poisonous for tens of thousands of years– long after seas rise to flood everything around Turkey Point but the 300 acre fill pad to be elevated 20 feet above sea level, looking to future generations like a gargantuan, radioactive flat-topped Mayan temple.

Shouldn’t taxpayers and ratepayers know what the added burden could likely be, fifty years from now, when the $16 billion ratepayer investment will either have to be decommissioned because of sea level rise, or, all access roads and service roads–all the way to Miami and beyond– will have to be elevated? 

And, at the same time, shouldn’t cost models factor in the risk of global warming to FPL’s consumer base? If sea level rise causes mass evacuations in South Florida, who will be around to pay for the ensuing nuclear emergency?

It is a very odd form of corporate compartmentalization that allows FPL to be the major supplier of wind-generated power in the nation yet fail to incorporate easily understood, projected costs in its business model for new nuclear reactors in South Florida. The rigid determination to shoe-horn nuclear at sea level shows why energy and economic security in the United States is such a distant, cold star.

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