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The radiation from Turkey Point should worry you — but not for the reasons you think

So you’ve been hearing a lot about an unfamiliar radioactive isotope clocking in at 215 times the normal level in Biscayne Bay.

Last week Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez released a study the county commissioned on Turkey Point nuclear power plant, which lies on the edge of Biscayne National Park.

The good news is that the radiation leaking from the nuclear power plant isn’t going to kill you, or make you grow a third eyeball.

The bad news is that it might be threatening Miami-Dade County’s main drinking water source and irreparably damaging Biscayne Bay’s ecosystem.

The study measured a radioactive isotope called tritium, as well as salinity levels, temperature, and pollution associated with the cooling canals at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant.

The tritium you’ve been hearing about is not the issue — it’s merely a tracer to help scientists figure out if there’s been a nuclear reactor leak. These levels aren’t harmful to people or the environment, according to an e-mailed response from Roger Hannah, senior public affairs officer of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But by showing where water from the plant has been ending up, tritium tipped scientists off to some things from Turkey Point that really do pose a threat: very hot, hypersaline (very salty) water, and high levels of ammonia and phosphorous.

The plant uses 168 miles of waterways, called cooling canals, to keep its nuclear core at a safe temperature. They operated at a non-problematic 100 degrees Fahrenheit until 2013, when FPL upped power production. The extra activity caused a 2-degree spike in the canals’ temperature and the higher temperatures sped up evaporation, leading to hypersalinity, which then led to algae blooms in the canals.

In 2014, FPL asked to dilute the canals with fresh water to bring the temperatures and salinity down. It worked, kind of, but the denser hypersaline water eventually settled at the bottom of the canals.

They’re supposed to be a closed network so that they don’t contaminate the Bay, but the canals aren’t sealed at the bottom. That allows water to seep into our infamous limestone aquifer, eventually reaching Biscayne Bay as well, according to Rachel Silverstein, the executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, a non-profit organization that advocates for Biscayne Bay.

The study released last week is only beginning to shed light on the results of that decision in 2014. The chemicals we now know have reached the Bay are ones that threaten marine life and cause algae blooms.

Watchdogs are observing the Biscayne Aquifer carefully for signs that the pollution has reached the part that provides drinking water for most of Miami-Dade and parts of Broward and Monroe Counties. So far, the hypersaline water, which is denser and holds together in a plume even when in larger bodies of water, is not near enough to raise the alarm of activists like Silverstein. While part of the aquifer lies under Turkey Point, that part isn’t actually potable, aka it’s not what comes out of your faucet.

“The county has monitoring wells around our drinking water areas. Our drinking water isn’t currently at risk because if the plume got within that range, the county would have the cooling canals shut down immediately,” she said.

That would shut down our electricity — which points to the bigger issue, Silverstein said. If we don’t bolster alternative sources of energy, the capacity of Turkey Point is going to be pushed to its maximum again and again.

In the long term, Dr. Philip Stoddard, South Miami Mayor and biological sciences professor at Florida International University, suggests a serious shift towards solar and wind energy.

“The best way to get energy is to get it from the sun and the wind,” he said. “I have solar panels on my house, and that makes a bunch of energy for my house. I have an electric car, too.”

A final study will be produced by Dr. David Chin, the University of Miami professor who authored the preliminary study, in 60 days. If you’ve still got questions you’d like answered, you have until March 18 to submit them through this form.

  • X3Charlie

    “The best way to get energy is to get energy is from the sun and wind” Is an outright lie. The best way to get energy is from coal and natural gas which is why they’re the biggest sources of energy. If you’re concerned with pollution then the best way is Nuclear. I wonder how this guy thinks with us already needing to push Turkey point beyond capacity how we would satisfy our need with less powerful and reliable wind and solar.

    If anything we need to decommission turkey point and build the newer reactors which are safer and more efficient. Solar is part of our future, but until battery technology catches up we need to be realistic.

  • I wonder if we have to wait for the Biscayne Aquifer to be destroyed and our drinking waters to be polluted to act. The time is now.

  • Claudia Gallegos

    I wonder if we have to wait for the Biscayne Aquifer to be destroyed and our drinking waters to be polluted to act. The time is now.