Lawsuit Claims Fla. Utility Fumbled Nuclear Waste Shipment

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One of Florida's biggest electric utilities mistakenly sent a shipment of nuclear waste to a farm pasture, a spokeswoman acknowledged Sunday, but documents filed in two lawsuits appear to show it also sent the waste to sewage treatment plants and other, unknown locations.

The New York Times reported in Sunday's editions that the internal documents and government records suggest Florida Power & Light made numerous shipments from its nuclear power plant in St. Lucie County to multiple locations in the 1970s and early '80s.

The level of contamination is a point of contention between the company and the parents of two children afflicted with cancer who sued FPL.

Company spokeswoman Rachel Scott said Sunday that the utility disclosed a mistaken shipment to Florida health and environmental officials and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the early 1980s and it cleaned up the waste. The contaminated materials were sent to a farm field that was licensed by the state for non-radioactive sludge disposal, Scott said.

"It was contaminated with extremely low radiation levels," Scott said in a telephone interview. "It was comparable to a normal background radiation level. We were told by regulatory agencies that it was not an issue."

Scott said Sunday that claims being made by the plaintiffs' lawyer have been disregarded by courts in the past.

"Their attorneys are latching onto an incident that occurred 23 years ago," Scott said. "These children weren't born until a decade after the incident occurred."

The two lawsuits are scheduled to go to trial early next year. One was filed by the parents of Zachary Finestone, an 11-year-old who was diagnosed with cancer in March 2000, and the other was filed by the parents of Ashton Lowe, who had brain cancer when he died at age 13 in May 2001.

According to the documents cited in the lawsuits, the Times said, plant workers used a sink to wash contaminated mops, rags and other materials, believing the drain was connected to the plant's radioactive waste system. However, the drain went into a sanitary sewage system, Scott acknowledged.

The contaminants were hauled away with sewage sludge, and at one point the plant was shipping to regular landfills materials that were 10 times as radioactive as what it was shipping to a low-level waste dump, according to documents cited by the plaintiffs. One state document refers to daily sludge being taken to an unknown site, the plaintiffs say.

The lawsuits also say records show the St. Lucie power plant's fuel was leaking radioactive fission products, like strontium and cesium, into the reactor cooling water and contaminating the plant.

Scott countered that claims Sunday, saying there has "never been any indication of any increase in radiation above normal background levels" at the St. Lucie County plant.

The parents' lawyer, Nancy La Vista, said she planned to argue that tests of the two boys' baby teeth showed abnormally high levels of radioactive strontium.

Many people have strontium (search) in their bones that was created from atmospheric nuclear testing, Scott said.

However, La Vista told the Times: "These kids were all born after Chernobyl (search), after Three Mile Island (search) and after atmospheric testing."

A call to La Vista's law office, seeking additional comment, was not immediately returned Sunday.