As many as two million Floridians were blacked out yesterday by a series of grid malfunctions that forced shut two old atomic reactors south of Miami and renewed nightmares of a radioactive catastrophe. The chain of events should serve as yet another serious warning to those who would build still more atomic reactors in Florida and elsewhere.
The wide-ranging blackout apparently started with an accidental trip at a substation. That sabotage has been ruled out may not be all that reassuring. Countless homes and businesses were affected from the Florida Keys to as far away as Tampa, Gainesville and Daytona Beach. Frightened Floridians were trapped in elevators or abandoned offices by making their way down dark, sweltering stairwells. In Miami-Dade alone at least forty traffic accidents piled up as signals went dark.
This blackout's reach was limited by steps taken since a 2003 reactor-related grid failure in Ohio led to a massive blackout that left 50 million people without power.
But the two large reactors at Turkey Point did trip from the loss of off-site power. (For safety reasons, vital cooling systems and other critical components rely on electricity coming from sources other than the reactors.)
A far more tense shut-down came when off-site power was lost during 1992's Hurricane Andrew, whose eye passed directly over Turkey Point. At the height of the storm, communication from the control room was also dangerously lost. Tools and equipment valued at around $100 million were destroyed or simply blown away.
Andrew's epic devastation made it clear that south Florida could never be evacuated in the wake of a melt-down amidst a hurricane. After the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, the NRC adopted specifications for evacuation procedures that were simply shredded by Andrew.
But Turkey Point re-opened three weeks later. To this day, no procedures are in place that could reliably evacuate south Florida's burgeoning human population if radiation releases occurred even under optimum weather conditions, let alone amidst a major wind event.
Nonetheless, Florida Power & Light now wants to build two more reactors at Turkey Point, at a cost of some $20 billion. The generators could not come on line until sometime between 2020 and 2025.
A request for "Construction Work in Progress" (CWIP) is now before the Public Utilities Commission. CWIP would force state ratepayers to cover the cost of the reactors as they are being built. The PUC could make a decision within a month.
FPL may also seek federal loan guarantees, $18.5 billion of which were noticed in the federal Appropriations Bill passed in December, 2007. The Lieberman-Warner Global Warming bill, soon to be debated in the US Senate, may also come with hefty subsidies for projects like this one. Two more reactors have been proposed by Progress Energy for a site near one reactor already operating at Crystal River, near Tampa.
Little if any private financing is likely forthcoming for the proposed Florida reactors. But if CWIP or federal loans come through, they may be hard to stop.
New reactor construction at Turkey Point would have substantial environmental impacts on the nearby Everglades National Park. Serious questions remain about pressure put on water supplies, damage to nearby wildlife habitat, and much more. A wide range of local and national environmental groups have begun to intervene against the project.
This blackout and reactor shut down happened on a clear, calm Florida day. Had the state been getting its power from solar panels installed on buildings, a blackout like this one could never have occurred.
But with still more reactors on the drawing board, it may be only a matter of time before Florida's reactors finally do take the sunshine state into the radioactive abyss.