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Federal regulators should keep Florida’s Turkey Point nuclear plant operating

The plant’s owners have asked for another 20-year extension.

Florida Power & Light moved a step closer to keeping one of its nuclear plants running for an additional 20 years. That’s good news for the climate and for Florida.

Late last month, the staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that their bosses extend the life of the utility’s Turkey Point plant. Near Miami, the plant contains two nuclear reactors that date back to the early 1970s and power about 450,000 homes.

The plant already received one 20-year extension. If granted, the latest extension would allow the reactors to run into the 2050s.

Turkey Point doesn’t have a perfect record. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has ordered the utility to control an underground saltwater plume linked to the 5,900-acre network of canals that help cool the reactors. Researchers also found radioactive isotope tracers in Biscayne Bay that are considered harmless to humans.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff, which looked at everything from the effect on wildlife to sea level rise, concluded in a 656-page environmental impact statement that keeping the plant open was a reasonable request. The staff also concluded that renewing the license was a better option than “all reasonable power-generation alternatives.”

Renewing the license isn’t ideal, given the plant’s recent problems and the lack of a long-term solution for storing nuclear waste. Turkey Point is also one of the older plants in the country. But South Florida’s growing population needs the electricity.

Eric Silagy, president and CEO of Florida Power & Light. [Courtesy of Florida Power & Light]

“If you shut the plant down, you have to replace it,” Florida Power & Light president and CEO Eric Silagy told the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s editorial board a few weeks ago.

Wind and solar aren’t an option — they can’t yet produce enough power 24 hours a day — and building a new nuclear plant is cost-prohibitive. Requiring aggressive energy efficiency programs to make up for the lost power would be politically difficult. That leaves natural gas as the likely replacement.

Natural gas is cleaner than burning coal, but it’s still an environmental menace and contributes to climate change. In the United States, it accounts for one-third of the carbon emissions produced from generating electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nuclear is carbon free, so keeping the reactors safely operating would be a win for the environment.

Turkey Point accounts for half of the remaining reactors in the state. The other two are at Florida Power & Light’s St. Lucie facility. A fifth reactor, in Crystal River, closed after a botched repair job 10 years ago.

RELATED: Let’s take a moment to remember the Crystal River nuclear plant.

Keeping Turkey Point open will help maintain a semblance of diversification among the state’s electricity sources. Natural gas has become the dominant player in the past two decades. In July, Florida utilities used natural gas to generate nearly 75 percent of all the electricity in the state. Nuclear was a distant second at a little over 11 percent. Coal (9 percent) and renewables (3 percent) made up most of the rest.

Natural gas prices have been low for years, but the heavy reliance on one fuel source exposes ratepayers to market volatility. If gas prices spike, which has happened many times in the past, so would rates.

Florida’s largest utilities were so concerned that they spent $6.1 billion hedging — essentially buying insurance — against higher prices from 2002 to 2015, a cost that they passed along to ratepayers.

All electricity sources capable of powering entire cities come with downsides. The Turkey Point nuclear plant is no exception, but the state lacks a better, viable replacement. Extending the license would be a prudent move.

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