Calm Before the Storm

How the American nuclear industry downplays the threat of climate-induced flooding.

Mayor Phil Stoddard keeps enough potassium iodide on hand for all the children of South Miami. The lanky, bespectacled biology professor-cum-municipal politician fears an accident at the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station, which lies 25 miles south of downtown Miami—and a mere 20 miles from Stoddard’s office in South Miami City Hall.

“Right after a nuclear release, you get a lot of radio-iodines … and they bind to your thyroid, and will cause thyroid cancer,” said Stoddard. “On the plus side, it’s one of the few treatable, easily treatable, cancers.”

Stoddard was sitting on the stern of a pleasure boat, next to Cindy Lerner, the former mayor of Pinecrest, another nearby city. The boat was bobbing in calm, blue, shallow water some 500 yards from Turkey Point, which houses two of America’s oldest operating commercial nuclear reactors. The site is massive. On a clear day, you can see the concrete containment vessels of its two Westinghouse pressurized water reactors from the top of the Rickenbacker Causeway in Miami. Its radiatorlike lattice of cooling canals is visible from the International Space Station. From their perch in the boat, Stoddard and Lerner can just barely hear the high-pitched whine of Turkey Point’s turbines. Inside the plant, atoms are split, generating enough emissions-free power for a million homes.

To see Turkey Point from the water is to grasp its close proximity to the sea, which is rising amid accelerating climactic change. The plant’s sea-facing east side was built to withstand 19.7 feet of water. When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, it produced one of the highest recorded storm tides in South Florida history—16.89 feet—just eleven miles north of the plant. Mean sea level in South Florida has risen slightly more than five inches since then. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts massive tropical systems will only be getting stronger as the planet warms.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s not supposed to happen that happens infrequently,” Stoddard observed from our calm stretch of shallow seawater. “And that’s the kind of thing that I fret about.”

The chance of a nuclear accident releasing significant radioactivity and harming the public is “very small,” according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency whose mission is, in part, “to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety.” But as sea levels rise, a flawed understanding of climate science and the outsize influence that the U.S. nuclear industry exerts on the NRC have converged, increasing the risk of disastrous flood-induced accidents at coastal nuclear power plants around the United States.

About the reporters

Mario Alejandro Ariza

Mario Alejandro Ariza

Mario Alejandro Ariza covers federal courts for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Kate Stein

Kate Stein

Kate Stein is a multimedia climate change journalist based in Miami.