Ahead of Florida's Primary, Miami's Nuclear Power Plant is Leaking

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio addresses supporters during a campaign rally inside an aviation hangar in Sarasota, Florida, March 8. Reuters

As Republican presidential primary candidates gather in Miami on Thursday night for their final debate before the Tuesday primary, South Floridians are learning that radioactive material is seeping into Biscayne Bay, the 35-mile lagoon that stretches along the state into the Atlantic Ocean.

A county-ordered report released this week found levels of the radioactive isotope tritium in the bay to be 200 times higher than normal, leading to suspicions that the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Homestead, Florida, which was built in the 1970s and supplies juice to 900,000 Floridians, is leaking.

While such a level of tritium is not harmful to humans, the problems at the power plant, on wetland that is vulnerable to rising sea levels, evokes the worst-case specter of another seaside nuke plant—Fukushima.

"I think the Fukushima scenario is very reasonable, and it terrifies me," says Cindy Lerner, mayor of Pinecrest, Florida, which sits 14 miles north of the plant. "I was never anti-nuclear. But when Fukushima happened, the U.S. government issued an alert to all U.S. citizens, that if they were within a 50-mile radius to get outta Dodge." Lerner says if a Fukushima-type event happened at Turkey Point, she's concerned because the current evacuation plan is limited to a 10-mile radius.

The Turkey Point plant's issues are hardly the only environmental concern troubling South Florida residents as they head to the polls next week, in what will be a decisive election for their junior senator, Marco Rubio, who has staked all of his campaign on his home state.

The four-county area around Miami is already seeing signs of the beginning of a nightmare scenario long predicted by climate scientists, in which rising waters increasingly affect roads and other infrastructure. The area's water problems are only the beginning of a potential six-foot sea level rise by the end of the century. And, as Newsweek reported in January, local governments have been left largely alone by state and federal lawmakers to deal with it.

A spokesman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees the safety of the nation's nuclear plants, reiterated to Newsweek on Thursday that the tritium is below harmful levels, and in fact is one-fifth of the amount of tritium legally allowed in drinking water. The spokesman did however say NRC will be working with the plant to find the source.

Local Miami leaders say the elevated tritium is a sign that the plant's system of cooling canals is degraded. In addition to tritium in the Bay (which includes a marine national park), warm saltwater from the cooling canals has been found in aquifers four miles west, threatening the already fragile Everglades freshwater system. The heated water is also believed to be harming wildlife.

"They are boiling the North American crocodiles," which nest in the area around the canals, says Lerner.

South Miami Mayor Phillip Stoddard, a biological sciences professor at Florida International University, says the nuclear power plant is simply in the wrong place, especially given higher waters.

"When sea level rises, the islands will be gone and there will be no more barriers to storm surge. It's just a bad place to put a nuclear plant—between the Everglades and the bay, at the foot of a peninsula that will be very hard to evacuate," he says.

Stoddard adds that other pollutants, related to the heated water, are going into the aquifer unchecked, and also threaten health and safety, including blooms of dangerous cyanobacteria, which shut down the water system in Toledo, Ohio, a few years ago. He also blamed the power plant for elevated levels of ammonia and phosphate in the bay. Taken together, Stoddard believes the problems represent violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Lerner met with the EPA's local government liaison on Wednesday in Washington to brief the agency on the two reports, one by Miami Dade County and another by the University of Miami, that found the problems.

"I told them you are our last and best hope," she says. "I said you don't want another Flint. This aquifer is our sole water source."

Lerner said they now plan to arrange a conference call in the next week with the city of Miami and hopefully the county, "to see whether the cavalry will come in" and do something to resolve the matter. A spokesman for the EPA was unaware of the meeting.

Complicating matters, Florida Power and Light plans to erect two more nuclear reactors to fulfill growing demand. The NRC is considering that request.

A spokesman for the utility said the company has been working on reducing salinity, adding that "there is absolutely no impact to drinking water or public safety." As for comparisons to Fukushima, the spokesman says the Florida plant took a direct hit from category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and was unaffected.

"The public should take comfort from that," he says.

Rubio's campaign did not respond to a request by Newsweek for comment. Stoddard and Lerner are among a group of 21 area mayors who have submitted questions about sea level rise and climate change to tonight's debate moderators.