What FPL's President Thinks About Nukes, Renewables
In a wide-ranging interview back in February, Florida Power & Light President Eric Silagy addressed a number of issues facing the state's largest utility.
The responses prompted a slew of feedback on topics ranging from storm preparedness and climate change to renewable energy sources.
One claim made by Silagy that got the attention of our audience was that FPL's Turkey Point nuclear facility in south Miami-Dade County sustained a quote “direct hit” from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
"That was the highest storm surge that I'm aware of in South Florida," Silagy said in response to whether the plant could sustain the force of a major hurricane today. "We had no issues at all with storm surge and that was from a Category 5, direct hit."
South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, who has a Ph.D in biological science and teaches at Florida International University, claims Silagy’s statement is true but misleading.
"The eye came straight over Turkey Point, but the dangerous side of the storm, the dirty side of the storm, came in north," Stoddard said.
Miami Herald environmental reporter Curtis Morgan covers FPL and hurricanes.
"I think it's splitting hairs to say they didn't sustain a direct hit from Andrew," said Morgan. "They were right on the fringe of the eye wall. It was a very strong storm and if you go directly to the west that was some of the worst damage. What they didn't get was the actual storm surge."
Storm surge may not be an issue for the reactors themselves, which are built on 25-foot mounds. But it’s the spent nuclear waste, stored away from the reactors in elevations of only 15 feet that concerns some activists.
Stoddard argues that there’s no way to know if those containment units can withstand the storm surge, putting the waste itself in jeopardy.
"Nuclear power generates nuclear waster that has to be kept apart from people for something like one to six million years. We don't have any idea how to protect something for a million years. We're having trouble grappling with sea-level change that occurs over one to two hundred years," Stoddard said.
During our February interview, Silagy said spent fuel is in good hands at both Turkey Point and FPL’s other nuclear plant in St Lucie County. But storms or no storms, he says the utility would prefer the waste be relocated to a national site dedicated only to storage.
"We're able to store the fuel on site at Turkey Point and St Lucie safely," he said. "There's plenty of space. But we believe it does make a lot of sense to have a central repository."
Florida Power and Light says nuclear power is still the most efficient form of energy production.
But the Herald’s Morgan says Japan’s earthquake and ensuing nuclear disaster two years ago has changed the conversation about safety.
"Overall, (FPL's) safety record is good and the industry's safety record is good. The concern is always about some catastrophic event like Fukushima," he said.
The discussion with FPL’s president also focused on renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind technology.
Silagy likened the utility’s efforts to investing in a diversified portfolio.
"The reality is that wind and solar is not more efficient than nuclear power. It has it's place in producing energy, much like a good investment in a 401-K," Silagy said.
However, Mayor Stoddard pointed out that renewables are not actually in FPL’s best interest.
"They (FPL) don't make money through energy conservation," he said. "They make money by selling electricity and nuclear power. It's a great way for shareholders to make money because the public bears all the risks and financing costs."
For now, nuclear power remains the utility’s best bet for the future. And as for the financing costs, they're known as a nuclear cost recovery fee and will continue to appear on all FPL customers' bills.
The Florida Supreme Court recently ruled that the fee is legal. This month, it unanimously upheld a state law that allows utilities to charge customers for future nuclear reactors - even if they never get built.
The court ruling came on the same day that the Florida Legislature passed a bill intended to decrease how much utilities could charge for nuclear power.