Turkey Point: A Hotter Idea Than We Thought

Turkey Point Power Plant

Ever since its construction, the Turkey Point power plant has been impacting the natural environment around it. Even before the construction of its nuclear reactors in 1973, the plant near Homestead, Florida has had many effects on the surrounding environment and the animals that inhabit this area. The addition of its nuclear facilities and the following increase in their power production has put more strain on the existing cooling systems, bringing with it additional environmental consequences.

NOTE: Much of the information in this overview is from a county commissioned report done by the University of Miami released in 2016(1). A few other studies are also noted and can be found in the references as well. 

The Setting

In the immediate vicinity of the plant is Biscayne Bay, a national park that protects many sensitive and ecologically rich ecosystems. The area includes sea grass meadows, mangrove forests, coral reefs and estuaries. This park is home to thousands of sensitive species and is protected for this reason.

The power plant itself is not the issue at Turkey point, but, rather, the cooling system is. The current cooling system of the power plant mainly consists of canals where heated water is pumped through to dissipate the heat into the air. There are over 150 miles of canals arranged in a grid that maximizes heat regulation. According to the description of the plant-and-site’s interaction with the environment, this canal system occupies about 8000 acres of land that was previously mangrove forest and freshwater wetland(2).

There are a lot of factors at play in this situation including, but not limited to, environmental preservation, ignorance surrounding the impact of the project, and, at the heart of it all, the increased energy demand of Florida citizens. Current analysis of the situation at Turkey point concludes “that stakeholder perception, statistical power, and the precautionary principle intersect at the crossroads of uncertainty”(3). Uncertainty is not a good place to be when there is so much at stake given the proximity of the plant to both the Biscayne Bay National Park to the East and the Everglades National Park and Aquifer to the West.

Pollution

Pollution comes in many forms, and several types are produced by the Turkey point power plant, all of which have unique effects on the surrounding environment. The ones of critical concern in this site are thermal, saline, and nutrient pollution.

Thermal Pollution

An early study, started in 1968 before the nuclear facilities were built, found that the heated effluent from the plant caused a change in both the plants and animals found in the aquatic environments surrounding the plant(3). An area of 12-20 Ha surrounding the output saw a complete replacement of the natural sea grasses and macroalgaes with a blue-green algal mat(3).

This was inarguably a less healthy and diverse ecosystem, and is a problem directly caused by the temperature change and nutrient pollution from the plant. On top of that, an area of about 120 Ha was found to have a decreased abundance of both plant and animal life and this corresponds to the area in which at least a 3 degree Celsius increase in temperature was noted(3). These researchers also noted that many creatures that could move themselves out of the canals did so when the summer heat coupled with the thermal output of cooling the plant became too much. If it weren’t for the extra heat, this natural space would have otherwise been habitable for these animals.

When the nuclear facilities were built in 1973, it was a closed cooling canal system(3). This stopped the release of heated effluent into Biscayne Bay and stopped its damaging effects. The 2016 report on the situation by the University of Miami notes that there is thermal pollution by the canal system into the groundwater and aquifer but that it does not pose an environmental threat(1). 

Saline Pollution

The 2016 report states that since their construction it was known that the cooling canals would have an affect on the groundwater salinity without mitigation efforts, so measures were taken to combat the effects of the project on groundwater salinity. The groundwater contamination by salt from the cooling canals at Turkey Point was not an issue that was noted until more recently than the ongoing thermal pollution, likely linking it to shortcomings in the original design and/or the plants relatively recent increased output. This may be aggravated by sea levels rising at a faster rate than predicted.

The original assumption for the project was that since they were moving salty water in one mile from the coast, it would have a similar affect as moving the coast in one mile - but this was not the case. The water in the cooling canals is actually more salty (due to the salt not evaporating with the water), and its level is higher, so it has a larger saline pollution effect. There are also other factors that affect the salt leaching into the groundwater such as the rainfall affecting groundwater levels and temperature affecting the salinity in the canals. For example, the algal blooms seen in 2014 caused an increase in salinity due to increased evaporation and this likely contributed to even more salt leach(1). These problems led to the development of a plan to clean up the canals to help prevent the seeping of their saline water into the aquifer and to start storing wastewater in a deep aquifer – a well so deep, entrenched within barrier rock, that it won’t contaminate the aquifer we depend on.

Nutrient Pollution

Pollution from the Turkey Point Power Plant is monitored using a harmless tracer isotope known as tritium. The 2016 report by the University of Miami noted that this tracer was found at concentrations indicating contamination at “3.8-4.7 miles to the west and 2.2 miles to the east” of the cooling canal system(1). This seepage is known to occur primarily through the bottom of the canal system so it largely affects the ground water, not the bay.

The waters of Biscayne bay are crystal clear due to the low organic matter and naturally low amount of certain nutrients found in the bay. This is because it is constantly flushed through with fresh water from other canals that prevent flooding in the everglades. Seepage of nutrients from the canal cooling system could greatly impact the health and stability of the ecosystems found in the bay. The algal blooms that have become more common in the canal system likely cause spikes in nitrogen containing compounds in the water in the canal. Algal blooms can cause these spikes when they die off because many species of algae and cyanobacteria that are responsible for these blooms fix nitrogen, literally pulling it out of the air and trapping it in molecules like nitrates, nitrites and ammonia. If seepage of these compounds into the bay were to occur to a point where they started to accumulate, there would no doubt as to the harmful consequences of the environmental effects, as the sea grass meadows need the crystal clear water in order to photosynthesize.

Unexpected Benefits

Since its construction, scientists noticed that many Florida crocodiles like to nest in the cooling canals of Turkey Point Power plant. The 2016 report from the University of Miami noted that more than 40 of the endangered American crocodiles are known to nest there any given year(1). This has always been viewed as a benefit of the project as the conservation of these creatures is of great importance. Crocodiles are known to prefer warmer waters than alligators so many scientists speculate this is the reason they choose to nest here. The site also offers protection from poachers which were a big part of this animals decline in the first place.

However, this unintended benefit may not have been permanent. The same 2016 report also notes that there are recent reports of a crocodile population decrease which may be linked to a salinity increase in the canals. This general salinity increase has been noted over decades but is also linked to the more recent increased output of the plant. 


References

(1) http://www.miamidade.gov/environment/library/reports/cooling-canal-system-at-the-fpl-turkey-

point-power-station.pdf

(2) NUREG-1437 (2002) NUREG-1437, Chapter 2, Supplement 5. Description of nuclear power

plant site and plant interaction with the environment. Office of the General Counsel U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001. pp. 1-60. January 2002.

(3) Roessler, M.A. Environmental Changes Associated with a Florida Power Plant. (1971). Marine

Pollution Bulletin. Volume 2, Issue 6, Pages 87-90

(4) Dolan, T.E. (2012) A Case Study of Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station.

http://scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1359&context=oa_theses