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With climate change, aging nuclear plants need closer scrutiny. Turkey Point shows why via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Caroline Reiser, September 14, 2020

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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