CRYSTAL RIVER -- Nearly 40 endangered sea turtles have entered an intake canal at Florida Power's nuclear facility in the past month, baffling plant officials and causing alarm among a watchdog organization.
All but two of the 38 turtles survived and were put back in the gulf. One was apparently dead before entering the canal and another died inside, said Florida Power spokesman Mac Harris.
The turtles, mostly Kemp's ridleys, were presumably in search of food. Warm water discharged by the plant attracts a variety of aquatic life.
Most of the turtles were between 3 and 4 years old, measured about 10 inches and weighed about 10 pounds, Harris said.
Because the number of live "takes" in one month approaches the federal two-year limit of 50, Florida Power plans to lobby the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an expanded threshold. Currently, the plant faces a two-year federal limit of three fatalities. This is not the first time the plant has had a sudden influx of turtles. In April 1998, officials reported that more than three dozen federally protected creatures entered the intake canal. Most were retrieved alive, but eight were dead.
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service blames Florida Power, saying its "cheap and dirty" cooling system is the cause.
The system, which is common and is said to be less expensive than building a cooling tower, draws water from the gulf and then sends it back out.
Paul Gunter, an official with the NIRS in Washington, said the juvenile turtles are critical to the species because they have already endured natural predators. "They are taking the strongest of the species. It certainly is a concern among us and other groups that are looking to protect endangered species."
Moving to increase the take limit, rather than increasing protection efforts, shows disregard for the species, Gunter said.
"Again, what we've seen is an effort on the part of Florida Power Corp. to evade responsibility under the Endangered Species Act."
Gunter recently co-authored a report, titled "Licensed to Kill," that charged the nuclear industry with a variety of crimes against nature. The Crystal River plant was among those singled out.
"Though willing to send the injured turtles it captures to respected rehabilitation facilities in the state, FPC avoids spending its own money to research or install prevention devices for sea turtles or conduct biological research on animals captured at the site," the report said.
Harris vigorously defended the cooling system, saying it was effective and safe and stressed that only one of the turtles taken in the past month died as a result of the plant. It got stuck near a gate at the intake canal.
Florida Power has staff biologists and uses employees to constantly scan the intake pool for turtles, Harris said.
"Our biologists don't know why we get more turtles," he said. "If we knew, we'd be certainly more than happy to deter the turtles. It's easy for someone sitting in an organization to make statements, but the fact is we've had 36 turtles that came in and were removed and were put back in the gulf."
He questioned the Nuclear Information and Resource Service's motives. "It's really an anti-nuclear group. They present themselves as an environmental group, but if you look at their Web page, they are not about the environment; they are about nuclear power."