Florida nuclear plant cooling water leaking into national park - study

Men fish for red snapper along a causeway in Biscayne Bay at twilight in Miami © Carlo Allegri
Cooling canals connected to the Turkey Point nuclear plant south of Miami have leaked water containing high levels of radioactive tritium into Biscayne Bay, a national park preserving one of the largest coral reefs in the world, according to a new study.

The study, released by Miami-Dade County in southern Florida, found that tritium levels in Biscayne Bay were up to 215 times higher than average ocean water, the Miami Herald reported. Tritium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen, is considered a "tracer" of nuclear power plant leaks.

The report does not go into threats to the public or animal life, but represents "the most compelling evidence" yet that Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station's cooling canals are polluting Biscayne Bay, the county study said.

Turkey Point is operated by Florida Power & Light (FPL), the largest utility in the state. FPL said it needed more time to review the study while it defended its record protecting Biscayne Bay.

"Our top priority is the health and safety of the public, and there is no threat to the health and safety of the public," said FPL spokeswoman Bianca Cruz, according to the Miami New Times.

The county's water tests found that, in the last five years, canal water had tritium levels as much as 800 times more than in the bay. Tritium levels at the bottom of the bay, near the canals, ranged from more than 130 to 215 times higher, suggesting leaks from the canals into the bay. Tritium, a hydrogen isotope commonly found in connection with nuclear reactor output, gives off radiation not considered dangerous at low levels.

"This is one of several things we were very worried about," South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, a biological sciences professor at Florida International University, told the New Times. "You would have to work hard to find a worse place to put a nuclear plant, right between two national parks and subject to hurricanes and storm surge."

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the county has "aggressively enforced its regulations" and would call on the state to demand FPL address the plant's problems.

Last month, a Florida judge ordered FPL to clean the canals in order to address an underground saltwater plume that is threatening drinking water supplies to the Florida Keys. The judge also criticized the state's management plan for the plant's pollution, echoing objections voiced by Miami-Dade County officials ever since FPL expanded the plant to increase output in 2013.

That overhaul of two reactors resulted in the canal water becoming too hot, a problem FPL blamed on an algae bloom. Yet the high temperatures persisted, causing FPL to power down the reactors at least twice, the Herald reported, while the saltwater plume increased. After county complaints, the state issued a management plan that critics say was in favor of FPL's continual polluting.

The plan was challenged in court, with the county settling in October once FPL agreed to take actions to counter the plume and to monitor water quality, among other measures. Increased monitoring indicated the canals were leaking into the bay, as tests found high levels of ammonia and phosphorus.