NextEra Energy Inc.'s plan to extend the lives of two South Florida nuclear reactors beyond 2050 is on a collision course with climate change.
Rising seas and hurricane storm surges are poised to threaten the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station and its cooling system during the next 35 years of that extended lifetime.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said March 22 that Florida Power and Light Co., a NextEra subsidiary, applied to extend the life of its two oldest reactors at the plant for 20 years beyond their current 60-year lifespan. If approved, the plan would allow the reactors to operate until to 2052 and 2053, making them the nation’s first to be permitted to run for 80 years.
NextEra has big plans for Turkey Point, which generates enough electricity to power 900,000 South Florida homes. In addition to keeping its existing reactors operating for another 35 years, it plans to build two new reactors there, which the NRC is in the process of licensing.
But by 2053, the Atlantic Ocean is projected to rise by up to two and a half feet along South Florida’s coast, raising the height of future hurricane storm surges and the specter of major flooding and damage.
Turkey Point, which uses a series of low canals to cool its existing reactors, was built in the 1970s south of Miami on the shore of Biscayne Bay. It sits in a hurricane-prone region that scientists consider among the nation’s most vulnerable to rising seas caused by climate change.
Reigniting Local Concerns
“As the water levels creep higher, necessarily, storm surge levels creep higher,” South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard told Bloomberg Environment. As seas rise, he said, “your site goes from a bayfront to an open ocean site.”
Though the reactors themselves are built 20 feet above sea level, many auxiliary backup systems, pumps, generators, and other infrastructure are at a lower elevation and not as well protected from storm surge, he said.
Local government officials and environmental groups already have been concerned that the company and the NRC are underestimating the pace of sea level rise and the ways inundation from the Atlantic Ocean may affect the plant’s operations and safety.
The crux of their concern is that the NRC and NextEra, as part of the licensing process for the two new reactors, are using historical data to estimate future sea level rise—not scientific projections that account for climate change, Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Bloomberg Environment.
Based on historical data, the NRC estimates that the Atlantic will rise at Turkey Point by about one foot or less through 2100, according to NRC licensing documents for the new reactors.
The Future Won’t Look Like the Past
But as the climate changes, the future won’t necessarily look like the past because the rate of sea level rise is expected to pick up over the decades as global temperatures rise, polar ice caps melt, and seawater expands.
Since 1950, sea levels in South Florida have risen about eight inches, according to SeaLevelRise.org, a group of public officials and scientists in Florida seeking to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change.
Scientific estimates for how much the Atlantic will rise along South Florida’s coastline vary, but they range from 14 to 34 inches by 2060, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data used by the 2015 Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, an agreement among four South Florida counties, including Miami-Dade.
National Park Service scientists estimate that the area around Turkey Point could see between 10 and 16 inches of sea level rise by 2050, which would be enough to reach the elevation of Turkey Point’s cooling canals, according to 2017 research published in the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering.
If Turkey Point’s cooling canals are flooded, the plant will be unable to cool itself and can’t operate. NextEra said it is confident its reactors won’t be affected by rising seas or extreme weather.
Turkey Point’s reactors are built high enough above sea level to withstand severe flooding, a tsunami, and storm surge from a Category 5 hurricane, such as Hurricane Andrew, which struck the area in 1992, Florida Power and Light spokeswoman Bianca Cruz told Bloomberg Environment.
Turkey Point did not bear the brunt of Andrew’s storm surge, which was highest north of the plant, Stoddard said.
“It has never been tested against storm surge,” he said.
Cities Urge NRC to Use Climate Data
The cities of Miami and South Miami and Miami-Dade County, in comments sent to the NRC about licensing of the two new reactors, urged the agency to account for rising sea levels at Turkey Point based on climate-change projections.
Miami-Dade County, in its comments, asked the NRC to license the new reactors based on NOAA data showing that sea levels could rise by more than six feet by the end of the century—six times the NRC’s estimates.
“Due to the facility’s proximity to the coast, the Turkey Point power generating facility’s vulnerability to sea level rise should be thoroughly considered and evaluated as part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review for extension of the operating license,” Miami-Dade County spokeswoman Tere Florin told Bloomberg Environment.
The NRC, in its 2016 environmental review for the new reactors, said it is aware of sea level rise estimates that exceed four feet by 2100, but called those scenarios “extreme.” Federal law requires the NRC to consider only likely future scenarios, not extreme ones, the agency wrote.
“If I was planning infrastructure of that criticality, I’d use the highest level of [sea level rise] projections possible,” Jane Gilbert, chief resilience officer for the city of Miami, told Bloomberg Environment.
‘Disturbing’ Sea Level Rise Projections
The differences between the NRC’s sea level rise estimates and scientific projections are “disturbing,” South Miami’s comments to the NRC said.
“It’s somewhat shocking that the NRC staff flatly refuses to adhere to the regional guidance for protection of critical infrastructure, calling it ‘extreme’ when considering the siting of a nuclear power plant filled with enriched nuclear fuel, and onsite storage of spent nuclear fuel,” the comments said.
The agency is not changing its assumptions about sea level rise for the licensing of the new Turkey Point reactors, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said, adding that the environmental review for the license renewal “will consider the implications of climate change on environmental conditions, including sea level rise.”
The new reactors are planned to use cooling towers instead of the cooling canals the old reactors use.
Turkey Point reevaluated its flooding risk after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan and found that the flooding hazard was greater than the plant is designed to handle, Burnell said.
The plant then took steps to reduce the safety risk from flooding. Florida Power and Light concluded last year that the flooding risk does not compromise the plant’s safety.
The NRC’s license renewal process of Turkey Point’s old reactors will involve a review of aging equipment and the environmental impacts of allowing the plant to operate for 20 additional years, Burnell said. That overall process is expected to take about two years, he said.