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Do Nuclear Plant Leaks Endanger Drinking Water?

Pollution, not radioactivity, is at the heart of a suit alleging a violation of the Clean Water act. Continue reading →

Flint, Mich., isn't the only place with a controversy over contamination of drinking water.

In the Miami area, alarm is rising over concerns that the cool canal system of the Turkey Point nuclear power plant is leaking contamination into Biscayne Bay, and that a groundwater plume from the canals is spreading west into an aquifer that is Dade County's main source of drinking water.

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A study by county environmental officials, released on March 7, reported that the system of canals, which is nearly 6,000 acres in size, is producing a "hyper saline groundwater plume" that is migrating landward and impacting water quality. Water levels of tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope often found in contamination from nuclear power plant operations, "provide compelling evidence that water originating from the cooling canal system is reaching these tidal surface waters connected to Biscayne Bay."

Two environmental groups, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Tropical Audubon Society, announced on March 22 that they would file a lawsuit against Florida Power & Light, which operates the plant, alleging a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The groups claim that the utility company has violated its permit by discharging polluted water that is high in salinity and contains phosphorus, ammonia and other contaminants.

Though the leakage contains a small amount of radioactivity, that doesn't appear to present a health risk. The environmental groups say that the levels of tritium in surface waters near the canals have increased from 100 picocuries per liter in 2010 to about 2,000 now. However, that level is still below the 20,000 picocuries per liter that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established as the safe limit for drinking water. (Here's a federal fact sheet on tritium.)

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The environmental groups allege that the leak is the result of the utility company upgrading the nuclear plant to generate more power. That resulted in a higher-than-predicted increase in the temperature of the water going into the canals, which essentially function like a giant car radiator.

Officials from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission are planning to hold a public hearing in Homestead, Fla. on March 30 to discuss the issue.

In an interview, FPL spokesman Peter Robbins disputed the allegations against the utility company. "The most important thing for people to know is that Turkey Point is safe," he said. "There's no threat to public health, no threat to drinking water, or to wildlife."

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Robbins didn't dispute the results of the county report, but denied that the problem was caused not by the plant upgrade. Instead, he blamed a prolonged drought that lowered the canals' water levels. He also said that company's measurements show that the contaminated plume is still miles away from drinking water sources, and that its movement appears to have stopped.

The 4,000-square mile Biscayne aquifer is the source of drinking water for about 3 million people in south Florida. Because the underground body of water is shallow, it's especially vulnerable to contamination.

The Turkey Point nuclear power plant, which has been operating since the early 1970s, is now being scrutinized as a source of pollution.

Nuclear waste is stored 2,150 feet underground at a federal facility near Carlsbad, N.M.