Experts Divided Over Safety of Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant

Critics of Indian Point say the NYC suburbs are no place for a nuclear plant, while advocates insist the facility is safe, despite having some seismic risk

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Indian Point nuclear reactor, seen from across the Hudson River/Credit: Daniel Case

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New York City, the nation’s most densely populated county, stands just 24 miles downwind from the Indian Point nuclear power plant, making it the closest and largest city to an atomic facility in the United States. 

Now the plant has brought another unwanted distinction to the area. A recent MSNBC investigation based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) figures reveals that among the country’s 104 nuclear power plants, Indian Point carries the greatest risk of reactor core damage from an earthquake.

NRC maintains that Indian Point and all U.S. nuclear plants were designed to absorb increased risk. “All plants continue to meet their seismic requirements and continue to operate safely,” NRC spokesperson Scott Burnell told SolveClimate News.

But in the wake of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station, some New York politicians and environmentalists are demanding a fresh cost-benefit analysis of Indian Point and the carbon-free power it provides. Leading the charge are New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner, whose town sits midway between Indian Point and New York City, and the Ossining, N.Y.-based environmental group Riverkeeper.

Could a disaster similar to the one still unfolding in Japan happen here? the critics ask. Is nuclear power’s zero-emissions electricity worth the risk?

Deep Pockets and Close Calls

Indian Point, owned by New Orleans, La.-based Entergy Corporation, has been plagued by a laundry list of safety violations and close calls.

Last year, 600,000 gallons of boiling radioactive water escaped as steam through an open valve. In a separate incident an electric transformer exploded. The reactor’s cooling system has pushed nearby water temperatures up 15 degrees in the surrounding Hudson River on several occasions, causing massive fish kills.  And back on 9/11, terrorists flew a fueled jet right by the nuclear plant as they followed the Hudson River to the World Trade Center. 

Despite its problems, the importance of Indian Point is hard to dispute.

It provides up to 30 percent of New York City’s and adjoining Westchester County’s energy needs.  That is enough, energy experts say, to power 2 million residences, Metro North commuter trains and the New York City subway system.  And it does this without burning the fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.  

“From an energy planning perspective we do need Indian Point,” said James M. Van Nostrand, executive director of Pace Energy and Climate Center from his office in White Plains, N.Y., a 20-minute drive from the power plant. And from a carbon-avoidance perspective, he added, “other solutions would not be as clean.”

Relicensing Blues

But the Japanese disaster places the plant under intense scrutiny and at its most vulnerable time.

The 40-year licenses for its two active reactors, units 2 and 3, are scheduled to expire in 2013 and 2015. To continue operating, they must be renewed.

Entergy had hoped for a fairly pain-free renewal process. And before Japan’s recent nuclear disaster, it looked like it would get one. Just this past December, NRC announced a preliminary decision that the plant’s environmental impact is not great enough to prevent it from getting relicensed for another 20 years.

But now the nuclear plant faces its own perfect storm. 

Gov. Cuomo, elected to office in January, pledged to close the plant. Entergy Corporation stocks dropped from nearly $74 per share before the disaster to $69 today.  And many residents are protesting that the New York City suburbs are no place for a nuclear power plant.

Far Less Seismically Active

The Japanese islands form part of the “Ring of Fire,” an active tectonic zone where plates shift constantly. Indian Point, in contrast, lies near the far less seismically active Ramapo Fault.

In fact, the largest earthquake in recent history to rattle the New York City area measured at a magnitude of 4.0 and occurred in 1985, said Jerry Nappi, spokesperson for the Indian Point Energy Center.

It caused no damage to the Indian Point plants. According to Nappi, the facilities are designed to withstand a 6.1 magnitude earthquake, a force 1,000 times more powerful than the 1985 quake.

“That seems like a reasonable hypothesis,” said Allan Ludman, chair of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Queens College, City University of New York, adding that given the area’s history of lower magnitude earthquakes, Indian Point’s design may in fact “be over-engineered.”

Other experts disagree. 

A study released in 2008 by seismologists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory reveals that Indian Point sits astride a previously unidentified intersection between two active seismic zones the Ramapo that runs from Eastern Pennsylvania to the mid-Hudson Valley and a previously undetected Stamford-Peekskill line.

The study calculates a 1.5 percent chance that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake could occur within the next 50 years. That would be a force 32 times the amount the Indian Point reactors were designed to withstand.

“Indian Point is situated … in the midst of a large population,” said report author Lynn R. Sykes in an interview. “This is clearly one of the least favorable sites in our study area from an earthquake hazard and risk perspective.”

Fleeing a Meltdown at Rush Hour 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved an evacuation plan for Indian Point intended to cover a 10-mile radius of the plant.  Many local residents scoffed at the plan, pointing to its dependence on school bus drivers and busy suburban roads.

“There is no way we’d get out alive,” said Alison Hendrie, a publicist and mother of four living in nearby Croton-on-Hudson.

The Japan crisis appears to be exacerbating these concerns. 

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko advised American citizens living within 50 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi complex to evacuate. This 50-mile distance applied to Indian Point would include nearly all of New York City. It would require evacuating an estimated 20 million people, the combined populations of New York City and the suburbs surrounding Indian Point.

NRC spokesperson Burnell says it is unfair to compare Fukushima and Indian Point evacuation distances. 

“It’s not apples to apples; it’s apples to watermelon,” he said. “Emergency planning continues to be appropriate.”

First and Top Priority: Indian Point

NRC agreed last month to make the Indian Point plan their “first and top priority” in a current study evaluating the risk of the 27 nuclear power plants located in seismic zones nationwide, said Beth Hayden, a NRC spokeswoman. 

This study, however, is not expected to be completed until 2012. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Indian Point’s relicensing review.

Burnell said that “it is possible that the NRC decision could be made before Indian Point comes in with the information.” 

He added that “if at any point during the plant’s licensed lifetime, information comes to light showing the plant is not meeting its requirements, then NRC would require the plant to shut down.”

Playing the Odds

Clear data measuring seismic risk has been hard to come by. 

Burnell spoke at length about NRC’s confidence based on extensive studies that Indian Point, along with the rest of the U.S. nuclear fleet, is built to safely withstand earthquakes and other disasters.  But he declined to reveal any calculations regarding the odds of an earthquake causing a catastrophe at a nuclear plant. 

Brian Schimmoller, a spokesperson for the Electric Power Research Institute, the group NRC contracted to calculate nuclear risk, said that models are still under development and will not be available until later this year. MSNBC used its own calculations and information it gleaned from NRC to rank power plants in terms of risk.  It placed Indian Point’s unit 3 at the highest risk of a seismic event happening each year, with a chance of 1 in 10,000.

By comparison, there is a one in a million chance that a 9.0 magnitude earthquake would occur in any given year, according to a British Geological Survey report.

Indian Point is No Fukushima

The Fukushima and Indian Point nuclear plants, of course, are designed to withstand most disasters. Regarding safety, discussions with Indian Point spokespeople and other nuclear experts reveal similarities between the plants, as well as key safety differences. 

Both sites rely on similar fail-safe mechanisms in the event that control rods used to power the plants and pump cooling water shut down. Japan’s six reactors relied on 13 backup diesel generators.  Indian Point’s two units have 8 backup generators, Nappi said. The Fukushima and Indian Point plants maintain onsite spent fuel rods that contain used radioactive fuel. These spent rods along with the active uranium rods that power nuclear plants must be kept in cool water to prevent a meltdown.

There are, however, substantial differences between the plants.

Indian Point units 2 and 3, built in 1974 and 1976, use a Westinghouse pressurized water design that generates steam to spin turbines that generate energy. (Indian Point 1 began operating in 1962 and was decommissioned in 1974.)  The Fukushima reactors, in contrast, were built in the 1960s and depend on boiling water. 

More importantly, the Fukushima reactors, unlike those at Indian Point, rely on American-made General Electric Mark 1 steel and concrete vessels to contain the nuclear fuel rods that power the plant.  These Mark 1 vessels, nuclear experts say, are not as strong and are more likely to crack than containment vessels made later. 

The tsunami knocked out the Fukushima generators leaving the plants to rely on battery power.  Batteries designed to last for a short time ran out of power before emergency help could reach the devastated area and repairs could be made.

While Japanese officials ran out of most options for the disabled Fukushima plant, choosing to pump seawater into the reactors, Indian Point’s backup design offers a residual steam system to drive auxiliary pumps and move water, Nappi said. 

In addition, Indian Point houses its spent fuel rods almost entirely below grade along the Hudson River making it difficult for water to seep and stay out. 

Moreover, no one predicts a tsunami, the final event that destroyed the Fukushima reactors, to happen on the Hudson River.

But Phillip Musegass, program director for Riverkeeper, said that “worst-case scenario” disasters cannot be ruled out and “and must be planned for.

“It is imperative that the NRC learn the fundamental lesson of Fukushima,” he argued. “If [the agency] conducts a truly comprehensive review of the risks posed by Indian Point, the only logical choice will be to close the plant down.”

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