With climate change, aging nuclear plants need closer scrutiny. Turkey Point shows why.

By Caroline Reiser | September 14, 2020

The canals of Turkey Point Nuclear Generating StationA Google Maps 3-D view of Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, situated on the Florida coast just south of Miami. The plant relies on a 168-mile network of man-made canals to release excess heat from the reactors. Image credit: Google Maps.

Disclosure statement: The author is a legal fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is currently involved in a legal case appealing the subsequent license renewal at Turkey Point.

Last December, two nuclear reactors at Florida’s Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, located 25 miles south of Miami, became the first reactors in the world to receive regulatory approval to remain operational for up to 80 years, meaning reactors that first came online in the 1970s could keep running beyond 2050.

The ages of the Turkey Point reactors are not unusual; of the 95 reactors currently licensed to operate in the United States, only five are less than 30 years old, while more than half are 40 or more years old. The Turkey Point reactors are a bellwether, just the first of possibly many aging nuclear reactors that will seek permission to stay online well into the middle of the century. Not long after the December decision, in March 2020, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted two more reactors, located in Pennsylvania, the same extensions that it gave Turkey Point.

In pursing these extensions, the US commercial nuclear industry and its supporters collide with the realities of the aging US nuclear fleet and climate science projections. Existing safety and environmental requirements fail to provide the oversight necessary to ensure communities and the environment are protected. As nuclear reactors receive permission to operate for twice as long as originally envisaged, and in a world that, because of climate change, is drastically different from the one they were built for, the insufficiency of the existing regulatory framework is daunting.

A 40-year lifespan? At the beginning of its commercial nuclear power program, the United States designed and licensed reactors with a 40-year projected lifetime. Once the 40-year license is set to expire, regulations require the reactor owner to apply for a renewed license in order to continue operating for an additional 20 years. What the regulations don’t make clear, however, is the number of times a reactor license can be renewed. What Turkey Point received last year was not its first, but its second extension—what regulators call a subsequent renewed license.

While the timeframe for the initial license was originally an economic decision, the 40-year projected life cycle reflects engineering realties. Throughout the lifetime of a reactor, the metal and concrete that make up and contain the reactor take a constant beating from the neutrons being released through nuclear fission. This causes the metal to lose flexibility, become brittle, and develop cracks and fissures. The concrete, designed to protect humans and the environment from a radioactive release, may also deteriorate over time. To ensure reactors continue to operate safely, those parts that were designed with a 40-year lifetime often must be replaced. While this may be technically achievable for some reactor parts, replacement can only go so far.

And even when it is technically conceivable to replace old reactor parts, economically it often is not. Already, nuclear reactors are closing well before their current licenses expire because of economic constraints. In today’s electricity market, nuclear power struggles to compete with cheap natural gas and renewable energy. Many reactors can only stay in business with significant additional government or ratepayer subsidies. These economic constraints have led to cost-cutting measures, including reducing health, safety, and environmental safeguards.

Even more bizarre, under current regulations, nuclear operators can take up to 60 years to decommission a closed plant. Decommissioning is the process by which a nuclear reactor is dismantled to the point that it no longer requires radiation protection measures. In the case of Turkey Point, if the reactors stay online beyond 2050, decommissioning could extend into the next century, when sea level rise due to climate change is predicted to inundate southern Florida.

Nuclear plants and climate change don’t mix. While proponents of nuclear energy often argue that nuclear power is a necessary tool against the climate crisis, nuclear power itself is at risk from climate change. Because reactors need huge amounts of water to operate, most existing plants sit on an ocean, lake, or riverfront. But this means that sea level rise, warmer water temperatures, and amplified droughts will all affect the ability of nuclear reactors to produce electricity. Last summer in Europe, several nuclear plants had to temporarily shut down because of increased temperatures and decreased water supplies. Such occurrences are bound to become more common as the climate becomes warmer and weather events become more extreme.

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It is especially ironic, then, that the Turkey Point reactors, perched on the southern tip of Florida, were the first to receive a subsequent renewed license. Close to half a million people live just north of the plant in Miami, and 2.7 million live in the wider Miami-Dade County. The plant sits 20 miles east of the Everglades National Park, on a piece of coastline carved out of Biscayne National Park. These surrounding natural lands are a unique, sensitive ecosystem, home to threatened and endangered species like the manatee and the American crocodile. While climate change is already stressing these people and resources directly, it is also compounding the challenges of safely running the nuclear plant.

Turkey Point is the only nuclear power plant in the United States that relies on an extensive network of cooling canals. Visible from space, the network comprises 168 miles of man-made canals spanning 5,900 acres, through which water used to cool the nuclear reactors circulates in order to release excess heat. In recent years, evaporation, coupled with reduced rainfall, has caused the canal water to become hypersaline, and that water is leaking into the groundwater, upsetting the delicate freshwater–saltwater balance and creating a plume of saltwater that threatens Miami’s fresh groundwater drinking source.

Climate change is already affecting the plant in other ways, too. In 2014, increased temperatures and decreased precipitation caused canal water temperatures to rise to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, just one degree shy of a federal limit that would require the reactors to shut down—right at a time when electricity was in high demand. The plant was only able to remain open after receiving special permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to exceed the 100-degree limit.

Further, in the coming decades, sea level rise is projected to reach Turkey Point’s cooling canals. If the canals become flooded, then the plant cannot operate. In the meantime, increased ocean temperatures and higher sea levels will exacerbate the hypersaline plume and the threat it poses to Florida drinking water and the local ecosystem.

Perhaps even more concerning, the climate crisis is also predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and storm surges. While Hurricane Andrew hit Turkey Point in 1992 and Hurricane Irma just missed it in 2017, the hurricanes of the future will be very different storms from those of the past. According to a 2020 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, global warming has increased the chances that a hurricane will reach Category 3 or higher, meaning that the risk that a hurricane will dangerously damage the reactors is only increasing.

One might expect that these climate impacts would have given the plant’s operators—and the regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—pause before granting permission to operate for an additional 20 years. Instead, the owners glossed over climate concerns in their application, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the extension without an in-depth consideration of the climate impacts.

The enfeebled license renewal process. The 20-year license renewal in the United States differs from most countries with commercial nuclear capacity, which often only approve extensions for 10 years at a time, or require extensive safety reviews to ensure that old reactors’ safety functions remain “as close as possible” to those of newer reactors. In the United States, applicants simply go through a limited license renewal process that involves submitting a truncated safety and environmental application, one that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has crafted to be virtually impossible for states, local governments, and communities to challenge.

In this process, major safety and environmental issues have been declared off limits by a regulatory sleight of hand known as the Generic Environmental Impact Statement. In 1996, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission drafted a generic analysis of those environmental impacts it deemed would be the same for every nuclear reactor license renewal. Because the commission determined that this statement addresses a set of designated “generic” impacts, and put the result of that analysis in law, individual applicants for renewed nuclear reactor licenses are not required to address those safety and environmental issues. Rather, applicants only need to supplement that generic impact statement with an analysis of issues categorically designated “site-specific.”

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The only way for a state or local government or the public to challenge whether the commission’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement analysis and conclusions in fact make sense to apply to a specific plant is to either ask for a rule waiver—and no waiver has ever been granted—or to wait to catch the next impact statement rewrite and challenge the agency’s determination then. But while the generic impact statement is supposed to be updated every 10 years, 17 years passed before the commission finally published the first update to the statement in 2013—severely limiting the usefulness of this route for addressing concerns about specific reactors.

So, for example, the commission determined it could generically analyze the impacts of renewing a nuclear reactor’s license on water quality. If someone is concerned with how climate change might exacerbate water quality impacts from the renewal of a specific reactor license, the only way to do so is by hoping the commission grants them the first ever waiver, or by waiting until the commission decides it’s time to update its generic impact statement, though that will probably be years too late.

Moreover, for the site-specific environmental analysis, it is the license applicant, not the government agency, that completes the first draft, giving the reactor operator the ability to frame the analysis to its wishes. And in order to challenge any of the environmental review, a party must petition to intervene in the license proceeding as soon as the applicant submits this first draft. If a petitioner fails to raise an issue at this early point, which can be a decade before the current license expires, that party will be precluded from challenging the environmental analysis later unless they can prove that new information has become available. Finally, even if a party successfully brings a challenge before the commission, the commission can still grant the renewed license before the challenge has been fully adjudicated—as happened in the case of the Turkey Point license renewal.

The broader deregulatory binge. This paltry license renewal process is worrisome enough on its own, but it’s even worse in the current atmosphere of deregulation. Nuclear safety is under assault in the United States. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has successfully rolled back important safety initiatives and is pursuing more degraded regulatory standards. Rejecting the majority of its own staff’s recommendations, in 2019 the commission implemented severely scaled down regulations based on lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. The commission is also proposing to decrease reactor safety inspections; allow for self-inspection and reporting by the reactor operator on a host of safety issues; require fewer “force on force” drills that test nuclear power plants’ defenses against terrorist attacks; and reduce requirements for notice to the public and to state governors when problems arise.

And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn’t the only federal agency on a deregulatory binge. The White House Council on Environmental Quality has overhauled its regulations interpreting the foundational environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act. These changes could significantly limit the scope of projects to which the act applies, the public participation in assessing those projects (including nuclear plants), and the impacts of those projects that an agency must analyze (including climate impacts).

Obtaining a second 20-year license renewal, especially for a reactor built in the 1970s, must be a serious endeavor that considers the reasonably foreseeable safety and environmental implications. Given the risk to people and the environment, if a nuclear reactor cannot rigorously demonstrate safe functioning well into middle of the century, nearby communities must be given the time and opportunity to plan for safer and less expensive alternatives.

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Charley Bowman
3 years ago

Will the rising temperatures eventually compromise the cooling ability of the pools of spent nuclear fuel? High burn-up fuel use and rising temperatures will likely increase the time to cool the spent fuel, and expose the Turkey Point infrastructure to increasingly more powerful hurricanes. Turkey Point needs to be closed ASAP.

Arnie Gundersen
3 years ago

I would also note that the storm surge for the proposed TP6/7 is higher than the storm surge from TP3/4 due to more improved modeling of global warming effects. The NRC has not modified the storm surge for TP3/4 in light of global warming.

Russell Lowes
3 years ago

Thank you for bringing up these issues. However, in once sense, the whole issue of whether to have nuclear energy as an option lies in its economics and how it undermines solutions to global warming. This is how nuclear energy works against the solutions to global warming, on economic grounds. Every time you spend a dollar on nuclear energy, the utility company only delivers 4 kilowatt-hours (kWhe) or less; it is 25¢ per kWhe or more, with prices increasing. If you instead put that dollar into the solar blend (solar, wind, energy efficiency and storage), you get 8 kWhe at… Read more »

Victor Gilinsky
Victor Gilinsky
3 years ago

The author refers in boldface to the enfeebled license renewal process but only discusses in detail environmental reviews. The so-called license extension safety review is a scandal. Although the whole thing is bureaucratically elaborate, and a bonanza for industry consultants and lawyers, the only question the NRC safety reviewers address is whether the plant owners have a plan for dealing with aging equipment so that the plant can meet its current “licensing basis.” The NRC reviewers are specifically forbidden by regulation from questioning that licensing basis, that is, the basis on which safety depends, even though it was set many… Read more »

Erin Stanton
3 years ago

I completely understand the author’s concern, but we need to flip the narrative on nuclear. The industry is making leaps and bounds when it comes to creating more economically sound, and safe, reactors and replacements. Yes, nuclear power does compete with fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, but when comparing all options, nuclear energy is far superior. Especially when trying to solve climate change, which is the main goal for every energy provider. Nuclear releases less radiation into the environment than any other major energy source and their power plants operate at much higher capacity factors than renewable energy sources… Read more »