This is the second installment in the series. You can find the first installment here. This post is focused on answering the following question.
- Is the Turkey Point power station violating the Clean Water Act (CWA)?
Bottom line up front (BLUF): FP&L is complying with the Clean Water Act at Turkey Point. SACE’s contentions are wrong and based on faulty assumptions. SACE is not acting on this issue because it is a pressing water pollution issue. It is seeking to capture media attention using scary words like “tritium” and “radioactive.”
It is interested in shutting down two operating emission-free nuclear plants and in stopping the plant’s planned expansion.
SACE allegations and intent to file citizens’ suit under CWA
On March 22, 2016, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) issued a press release headlined Citizen groups signal intent to file Federal lawsuit against Florida Power and Light (FPL), citing radioactive elements and other water pollution discharged into Biscayne Bay. The press release was accompanied by a press conference, which was covered by CBS Miami in a segment titled Environmental Groups To Sue FPL Over Reported Turkey Point Leak, shown below.
Aside: I’d bet that Stephen Smith and Laura Reynolds, both from SACE, flew from their headquarters in Knoxville, TN to Miami, FL via a private plane owned by Turbo Arrow Aviation LLC. According to SACE’s 2014 IRS form 990 schedule L “Transactions with Interested Persons”, the non-profit organization entered into a five-year agreement beginning in August 2012 that pays Turbo Arrow Aviation $1,000 per month for priority scheduling to transport staff members to meetings throughout the southeast. Actual flight time is compensated at a rate of $275 per hour.
This arrangement met the reporting criteria because Turbo Arrow Aviation is an LLC owned by Stephen Smith, the Clean Energy group’s Executive Director and one of the stars of the press conference. In 2014, the arrangement resulted in a payment of $152,649 to Smith’s charter air transportation LLC. That indicates that company spent 511 hours in the air transporting SACE staff members to meetings and press conferences.
I wonder who was flying the company’s plane on August 22, 2012 when it chose an unusually wet place to land. Could there be a relation between the effects of that landing and the new arrangement with SACE? End Aside.
Here are some quotes from the press release.
Last week, following an extensive review of the growing body of evidence documenting leaks of radioactive elements and other pollutants into Florida surface and ground water, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Tropical Audubon Society issued a 60-day notice of intent to file a citizen lawsuit against Florida Power & Light (FPL) under the Clean Water Act (CWA).
Among those contaminants is tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen produced by nuclear reactors most often found as a groundwater contaminant at nuclear plants. Radioactive tritium has been documented in both surface and groundwater outside the Turkey Point nuclear complex and studies confirm a growing plume of hyper-saline water and other pollutants in all directions including into the Biscayne Aquifer.
Section 301(a) of the Act U.S.C. § 1311(a), prohibits the discharge of pollutants from a point source to waters of the United States except in compliance with, among other conditions, a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued pursuant to section 402 of the Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1342. Each violation of the permit, and each discharge that is not authorized by the permit, is a violation of the CWA.
FPL has violated and is violating its NPDES Permit by unauthorized discharges of the pollutants, including, but not limited to, excess salinity, phosphorus, ammonia, TKN, total nitrogen, and radioactive tritium, into waters of the United States in Biscayne Bay. Additionally, FPL has violated its NPDES Permit by discharges of hyper-saline water contaminated with radioactive tritium into ground water, threatening the water supply for Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys. FPL has also violated the Clean Water Act by discharging pollutants without an NPDES permit and causing violations of water quality standards in Biscayne Bay, which is protected from degradation as an Outstanding National Resource and Outstanding Florida Waters.
I called the media contact number provided in the press release and left a message that included an article deadline as requested. After the deadline passed, I called again and spoke to a pleasant young lady who informed me that her boss had tried to call back but wasn’t able to reach me. We diagnosed that the person who had passed the message had transposed a couple of numbers in my area code.
Sarah told me that her boss now had a new phone number but was no longer in the office. It was nearing 6:00 pm on Good Friday, so she commiserated with me as someone else who was working late on a holiday weekend.
At about 7:30 Dr. Smith returned my call. I admire his devotion to his work.
We did not exactly get off on the right foot. I asked him why the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy was attacking a clean power producer. He reacted by asking me if I had done my homework and read the intent to sue and the study used as the basis for that notice. At the time, I had not. I’d overlooked the links to the documents in the press release.
After admitting my failure to have done all the reading before calling, I tried to get us back to my questions. He was adamant that his organization was not going after Turkey Point because it was a nuclear plant, but because it was an industrial facility that was violating the Clean Energy Act and not being forced by regulators to stop polluting the Bay and the aquifer.
He explained that his organization recognized that the tritium levels that the studies had measured were well below the EPA’s allowable limit for drinking water. He admitted that the Bay wasn’t a drinking water source because it is a body of salt water and that the nearest drinking water wells were several miles from the cooling canal system.
I noted that the other pollutants noted in his organization’s press release are not produced in nuclear power plants. I mentioned that they are produced by natural processes within salty estuaries and by common South Florida facilities like farms, limestone rock mining, and suburban homes with lawns and swimming pools.
He insisted that the documents I had not yet read would convince me that the cooling canals were the source of the pollutants. He also accused me of pro-nuclear bias (guilty as charged) and reiterated that the objection to Turkey Point was not because it was a nuclear facility. We began getting a little loud and stopped waiting for the other to complete their thoughts.
He told me that if I had any journalistic integrity, I read all of the relevant documents and then perhaps be more willing to ask him reasonable questions. I told him that if he had any “clean energy integrity” he would call off his attack and realize that the pollution he was claiming violated the Clean Water Act wasn’t harming the environment.
He angrily told me it didn’t matter whether or not there was any harm yet; what mattered was that FP&L was violating its permits by discharging water containing contaminants from a part of the plant in which discharges were not allowed. He said no one is allowed to break the law and that it’s not okay for FP&L to downplay the issue.
When I asked how he could say there were “discharges” when there are no pipes or other connections between the canals and the surrounding wetlands or waterways, he told me to go do my reading and ended the call.
Canal system is not in violation of any permits
As explained in part I of this series — which I wrote after having spoken with Dr. Smith and after having read both the SACE intent to sue and the paper produced by University of Miami’s Dr. Chin — tritiated water has been evaporating from the Turkey Point cooling canal system since Unit 3 first began operating in 1973.
It is perfectly legal and environmentally harmless for FP&L to discharge allowed quantities of tritium-containing water from its nuclear units into the canal system. That system has an NPDES as an industrial wastewater facility.
A competent researcher should expect to find measurable tritium in the waters and wetlands near the cooling canal. She should also be able to measure that tritiated water has percolated through the soil and that concentrations of tritium fall with increasing distance from the source.
In 2011, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was reviewing FP&L’s application for an Extended Power Uprate for Turkey Point Units 3 & 4, Mr. Steve Torcise, Jr. of Atlantic Civil, Inc. filed a comment alleging that the cooling canal system was obviously not a closed system and that it was in violation of its permit.
Mr. Torcise additional claimed that his employer had been harmed by the saltwater intrusion he and some researchers have attributed to the Turkey Point CCS because they were required to perform costly monitoring to prove that salt water had not intruded onto the boundaries of their limestone mine. Here is a quote from the NRC’s response to Mr. Torcise’s comment.
The CCS is operated under an industrial wastewater facility “No Discharge” National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued by the State of Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) for water discharges to an onsite closed-loop
recirculation cooling canal system.
In this case, closed-loop recirculation means that the cooling canal does not have a pipeline connection with water bodies surrounding the PTN site such as Biscayne Bay for receiving or discharging its water. Monitoring data show that there is indirect surface water communication between the CCS and Biscayne Bay. The NRC staff revised the surface water and aquatic resources sections in the final EA to clarify that there is some water exchange between the cooling canal and other water systems and that aquatic species within the cooling canal are unable to travel into or out of the canal system.
Of course, non aquatic species like birds, snakes, turtles and crocodiles are free to come and go into the CCS as they please. Winds, water vapor, pollen, seeds and leaves are not prevented from flowing across the surface boundary of the open canals.
What about chemicals besides tritium?
When my wife was working for the Chesapeake Bay foundation, I learned that water quality experts lump substances like phosphorus, ammonia, TKN (Total Kjeldahl Nitrogen), and total nitrogen into a larger category of pollutants called “nutrients.” Even though these substances have numerous natural sources, they can have harmful effects in bodies of water because they stimulate algae growth, have the potential for scavenging dissolved oxygen, and can fertilize invasive plant species.
However, those substances are not generally used or produced in nuclear or fossil fuel power plants. Here is what Dr. Chin’s study (pg 9) says to explain why they are found in the CCS.
The addition of nutrients from the power-generating units into the CCS is assumed to be negligible, with nutrients likely originating from allochthonous sources.
I had to look up allochthonous. I found a useful article titled When a tree falls in a stream, there’s always something around to make use of it. The introduction to that piece explains allochthonous as follows.
Allochthonous may have some obscure usage related to rocks, but in ecology, allochthonous material is a major concept that underpins thinking about nutrient cycling and food web dynamics. In its most general definition, allochthonous material is something imported into an ecosystem from outside of it. Usually, ecologists are thinking about organic matter and the nutrients (C, N, and P) that come with it.
If CCS isn’t leaking, why are salinities and temperatures elevated?
As a condition of its NPDES permits and the environmental assessment issued in support of the Extended Power Uprate, FP&L has been monitoring its CCS, the surrounding waters and the adjacent wetlands. It has continuous indication of the temperature of the plant discharges into the CCS and the intake temperature from the CCS.
During the period from 2012-2014, the CCS experienced a drought. Measured rainfall for 2012 and 2013 was about 110 inches less than what would have normally fallen during a two year period. As a result of continued evaporation and vastly reduced freshwater input, the CCS temperature climbed and the salinity concentration increased.
The simplest, cheapest, and arguably lowest environmental impact solution for high temperatures and salinity was to obtain permission to move up to 100 million gallons of water per day from a nearby flood control canal into the CCS. Permission was granted in September 2014 from the local water management district and the board of county commissioners to install a temporary pump and pipeline network and implement that solution.
Some of the plant’s neighbors, including the still-complaining Atlantic Civil, Inc.–the same entity that tried to halt the power uprate–don’t like the solution. They have petitioned regulators to impose harsher penalties. The opposition is calling for remedies like lining the canal system, flushing out the existing inventory (with an unspecified source of clean water and an unspecified discharge location), or shutting down the power plant. They’re also blaming the extended power uprate.
“If they don’t flush out all this stuff, it’s not going to operate properly. And we’re saying no way are you going to flush out this pollution to our wellfields and Biscayne Bay,” said Tropical Audubon executive director Laura Reynolds. “They [expanded] their power plant and went too far.”
Here is what the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) press release claimed about the plant’s improved production of emission-free electricity.
In 2012 and 2013, the two nuclear generators were ‘uprated’ to increase power production, resulting in a much higher than predicted increase in the temperature and salinity of the water in the cooling canal system. The Turkey Point Power Plant and the cooling canal system are underlain by porous limestone geology, including the Biscayne Aquifer, and the contaminated water in the cooling canal system has for many years discharged, and continues to discharge, from the cooling canal system into the groundwater and into Biscayne Bay.
These actions, and FPL’s ongoing desire to build two additional nuclear reactors at the site instead of taking the time to fix what is already broken, makes it clear that the health of Floridians is not the Company’s priority, which is why this coalition is demanding that action by regulators be taken.
“Operating an industrial power facility effectively bordered by two national parks and highly protected waters requires the highest standards and strong regulatory oversight. Anything less is unacceptable,” said Dr. Stephen Smith.
The reactor power increase was limited by the NRC license amendment to a total of 688 MWth. One third of that additional heat input from the reactors is being converted into electricity. Approximately 500 MWth of additional heat from units 3 and 4 is being added to the CCS. However, after uprating the nuclear plant and completing a modern, efficient combined cycle gas turbine power plant (unit 5) the two earliest and no longer needed 450 MWe gas/oil fired power plants are no longer operating.
Unit 5 has a separate cooling system and does not use the CCS. The two oil/gas units were each producing about 900 MWth of waste heat when in operation. Shutting down the two fossil units subtracted 1800 MWth from the heat rejected to the CCS while the power uprate added just 500 MWth for a net decrease of 1300 MWth. The drought is what caused the increased CCS temperatures.
If the opponent’s concerns were limited to the alleged discharges from the CCS, there would have been no reason to introduce any comment about the future installation of units 6 and 7. Those new plants will have their own low rise cooling towers supplied with reclaimed water from the nearby megalopolis that I escaped about 40 years ago by heading off to college.
What is the nearby water contamination issue that FP&L has reported to its regulators and is working to correct?
FP&L’s monitoring program discovered that water near the bottom of four deep excavations outside of the CCS — one adjacent to a refueling ship dock, two associated with the no-longer-used once through cooling system used for units 1 & 2 before the construction of the CCS, and one deep water canal used for heavy equipment deliveries to the plant — have excess nutrients and salinity. These areas have very low or zero flushing rates, a large amount of decaying plant matter, and would be affected by the same kind of imbalance between evaporation and rainfall that caused a problem with the CCS.
The company is working with regulators to devise a solution for those isolated pockets of water that does not meet specifications but no qualified observer believes that the plant is the source of the salt or nutrients found in the stagnant deep pools.
To be continued.
Note: I have uncovered some interesting possibilities that might help to explain the virulence of the current attacks on Turkey Point. Surprisingly enough, it is possible that the real motive for discrediting the site isn’t just due to opposition to nuclear energy or expansion of the existing power capacity of the plant. I think I might have found some interests that see the power plant site itself as a roadblock. It might take some time to find confirmation of my developing theory.