Beyond all these fears that keep south Florida's environmentalists and urban planners up at night, rising sea levels present an even more chilling threat to life in greater Miami. Turkey Point Nuclear Plant, which sits on the edge of the Biscayne Bay just south of Miami, is completely exposed to hurricanes and rising seas. "It is impossible to imagine a stupider place to build a nuclear plant than Turkey Point," says Philip Stoddard, the mayor of South Miami and an outspoken critic of the plant.
The Turkey Point nukes began operation in the early Seventies, long before sea-level rise was an issue. But precautions were taken to protect the plant from hurricanes; most importantly, the reactor vessels are elevated 20 feet above sea level, several feet above the maximum storm surge the region has seen. According to Florida Power and Light, the electric utility that operates the plants, there is virtually no chance of a storm surge causing problems with the reactors. As evidence of this, Michael Waldron, a spokesman for the company, points to the fact that Hurricane Andrew, a Category Five hurricane, passed directly over the plant in 1992, with very little damage. "It goes without saying that safety is our number-one priority," Waldron said in an e-mail.
But Stoddard and other critics of the plant are not reassured. For one thing, although the plant did weather the hurricane, the peak storm surge, which was 17 feet high, passed 10 miles north of the plant. According to Peter W. Harlem, a research geologist at Florida International University, the plant itself only weathered a surge of about three feet – hardly a testament to the storm-readiness of the plant. How would Turkey Point fare if it were hit with a Hurricane Katrina-size storm surge of 28 feet?
Stoddard also points out that, although the reactors themselves are elevated, some of the other equipment is not. "I was given a tour of the plant in 2011," says Stoddard. "It was impressively lashed down against wind, but even I could see vulnerabilities to water." Stoddard noticed that some of the ancillary equipment was not raised high enough. He was particularly struck by the location of one of the emergency diesel generators, which are crucial for keeping cooling waters circulating in the event of a power failure (it was the failure of four layers of power supply that caused the meltdown of reactors in Fukushima, Japan, after the plant was hit by a tsunami in 2011). Stoddard says the generator was located about 15 feet above sea level, and it was housed in a container with open louvers. "How easy would it be for water to flow into that? How well does that generator work when it is under water?"
Another problem: Turkey Point uses a system of cooling canals to dissipate heat. Those canals are cut into coastal marsh surrounding the plant, which is only about three feet above sea level.
But the biggest problem of all is that inundation maps show that with three feet of sea-level rise, Turkey Point is cut off from the mainland and accessible only by boat or aircraft. And the higher the seas go, the deeper it's submerged.
According to Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and the director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the situation at Turkey Point underscores the backwardness of how we calculate the risks of nuclear power. The Nuclear Regulatory Committee, which oversees the safety of nukes in America, demands that operators take into account past natural hazards such as storms and earthquakes, "but they are silent about future hazards like sea-level rise and increasing storm surges," Lochbaum says. The task force that examined nuclear-safety regulations after the Fukushima tsunami recommended that the NRC begin taking future events into account, but so far, they have not acted on the recommendation.
Still, Florida Power and Light insists the plant is perfectly safe. When I asked for details about their plans to armor the plant from sea-level rise, their PR reps were elusive. They told me that the plant's current design is suitable to handle sea-level rise but would not tell me how much. (Six inches? Six feet?) They would not disclose plans to protect or redesign the cooling canals. They assured me that "all equipment and components vital to nuclear safety are flood-protected to 22 feet above sea level." But when I asked to visit the plant and see for myself, they refused.
I went out there anyway. I was denied access to the inner workings, but I got a very nice view of two aging 40-year-old reactors perched on the edge of a rising sea with millions of people living within a few miles of the plant. It was as clear a picture of the insanity of modern life as I've ever seen.
Florida Power and Light thinks Turkey Point is such a great place for nukes that they are proposing to build two more reactors out there. Given the life expectancy of a nuke plant, it means that the people of South Florida would likely live with the threat of a radioactive cloud over their heads until at least 2085. The plan, which would cost upward of $18 billion, has not yet been approved by state or federal regulators.
Miami is the most connected city in America, a place where the entire economy is geared toward the next big banking deal, real-estate deal, drug deal. As Wayne Pathman, a land-use attorney in Miami, put it to me, "The biggest question for the future of Miami is how investors will react when they understand the risks of sea-level rise." The rivers of cash that are flowing into the city right now are pretty clear evidence that few investors are worried about that risk. Brickell, the hot new neighborhood where the $1 billion Brickell CityCentre, one of the biggest new developments in the city, is currently under construction, is a few blocks from the water – streets are already nearly impassable during big storms. "It's partly denial and ignorance, and partly a feeling that they can beat the odds," says Tony Cho, the president of Metro1 Properties Inc., a large real-estate firm in Miami.
One thing that may change that is insurance rates. After Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, many large insurers stopped offering property coverage in the state, citing the high risks of hurricane insurance. That left Florida in a dangerous position, with only small regional insurers to underwrite storm coverage for homeowners. But in the event of a large storm, the small insurers don't have sufficient capital to cover the claims they would receive. To remedy the situation, the state began offering its own low-cost insurance under the name Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, which has become the largest insurer in the state. By subsidizing insurance, lawmakers hoped to keep costs down and development booming. The problem is, Florida is now on the hook for billions of dollars. "A single big storm could bankrupt the state," says Eli Lehrer, an insurance expert and president of the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
Flood insurance is likely to skyrocket, too. The National Flood Insurance Program is currently more than $20 billion in debt, thanks to payouts related to Hurricane Sandy and other extreme-weather events. In 2012, Congress passed the Flood Insurance Reform Act, which jacks the price of insurance up for people living in known flood zones. More reforms of this sort are sure to come. For a place like Miami, where virtually the entire city is a flood zone, the economic costs could be in the hundreds of billions.
The financial catastrophe could play out like this: As insurance rates climb, fewer are able to afford homes. Housing prices fall, which slows development, which decreases the tax base, which makes cities and towns even less able to afford the infrastructure upgrades necessary to adapt to rising seas. The spiral continues downward. Beaches deteriorate, hotels sit empty, restaurants close. Because Miami's largest economies are development and tourism, it's a deadly tailspin. The threat of sea-level rise bankrupts the state even before it is wiped out by a killer storm.
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