The operator of a Florida nuclear plant appears to have shipped radioactive waste
to ordinary landfills, municipal sewage treatment plants and some unknown locations
in the 1970's and early 80's, according to internal documents and government records
obtained in lawsuits.
Florida Power and Light said that in 1982 it had mistakenly made a shipment
to a landfill, but the documents appear to show numerous shipments to multiple
locations. In addition, while the company conducted a survey and cleanup in
the one known location, it found only one kind of radioactive material, and
nuclear experts involved in the lawsuits say there must have been other isotopes
for which no tests were conducted. The overall level of contamination is difficult
Plant workers used a sink to wash mops, rags and other heavily contaminated
materials, believing that the drain was connected to the plant's radioactive
waste system, but instead it drained into a sanitary sewage system, according
to the documents. The contaminants were then hauled away with sludge. According
to documents cited by the plaintiffs, at one point the plant in St. Lucie County
was shipping to regular landfills materials that were 10 times as radioactive
as what it was shipping to a low-level waste dump.
A spokeswoman for Florida Power and Light said the company had mistakenly made
two such shipments in the early 80's, but had disclosed it at the time and removed
the waste afterward.
"It's a 23-year-old event," said Rachel Scott, the spokeswoman. "It
was thoroughly investigated at the time by both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
and the Florida Department of Health, who determined that there was no health
Samples were tested in a lab and only one isotope, cobalt-60, was found, Ms.
Scott said. Cobalt-60 is a material that becomes radioactive when neutrons from
the reactor core are captured by atoms of metal. But the plaintiffs say records
show that at the time St. Lucie's fuel was leaking fission products, like strontium
and cesium, into the cooling water and thus contaminating the plant. Such contaminants
would have been present in the mops and similar materials, they argue.
According to documents obtained by the plaintiffs, however, a week after the
cleanup was completed at a dump site the company found contamination at a level
20 times what was proposed by the State of Florida, and thousands of times higher
than what the Environmental Protection Agency allowed for agricultural land;
the surrounding area is used for cattle and citrus.
A state document quoted by the plaintiffs says that some contaminated material
was transported to a "cow pasture." Another state document refers
to daily sludge being "removed by Portolet to unknown site."
The company has concealed the shipments from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
according to the lawsuits.
The parents of Zachary Finestone, an 11-year-old who grew up in the area and
was diagnosed with cancer in March 2000, filed suit in Federal District Court
for the Southern District of Florida in 2003. The case is scheduled to go to
trial in January.
The parents of Ashton Lowe, who had brain cancer when he died at age 13 in
May 2001, filed suit in 2003 in the same court. That case is scheduled for trial
early next year.
The parents' lawyer, Nancy La Vista, said she planned to argue that tests of
the boys' baby teeth showed abnormally high levels of radioactive strontium,
which is produced when atoms are split and that when ingested binds to human
bones. Older people have strontium in their bones that was created from atmospheric
nuclear testing. But, Ms. La Vista said, "These kids were all born after
Chernobyl, after Three Mile Island, and after atmospheric testing."