Mon 28 Mar ‘16 04.00 EDT
As New York’s governor and other critics wage an ongoing campaign to shut the facility down citing leaks and old age, nearby residents explain complicated tale
Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York, is among the oldest nuclear power plants still in operation.
Outside the Westchester Diner in Peekskill, New York, about 40 miles from New York’s Central Park, a reactor dome crests the trees behind an overpass like a giant’s bald head.
It’s one of two at Indian Point Energy Center, at the bank of the Hudson river in neighboring Buchanan, among the oldest nuclear power plants still in operation, and a monument to the energy industry’s resistance to years of work by concerned scientists, locals and state officials to close down a facility that only last month dumped a plume of radioactive waste into their groundwater.
Indian Point’s two working reactors opened in the early 1970s and have had a lot of people worried for a long time. Five years ago the New York Times wondered if it was “America’s Fukushima” – the Japanese site of the world’s worst radiation crisis since Chernobyl. In February the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, called its operation “unacceptable” – he wants the plant closed.
It’s easy to see the source of his concern. The population density around Indian Point is of more than 2,100 people per square mile, by far the greatest for any of the US’s 61 nuclear power plants. Many of those people live and work in the plant’s shadow with growing unease.
In May 2015, an electrical transformer in the reactor called Unit 3 exploded, causing water to flood a room near the explosion where electrical distribution panels are housed and pouring 3,000 gallons of oil into the Hudson. The Union of Concerned Scientists classified the incident as a “near miss” in its annual review. Last year near misses occurred at eight nuclear facilities in the US.
“Had the flooding not been discovered and stopped in time, the panels could have been submerged, plunging Unit 3 into a dangerous station blackout, in which all alternating current (AC) electricity is lost,” the report’s authors wrote. “A station blackout led to the meltdown of three nuclear reactor cores at Fukushima Dai-ichi in 2011.”
In February, radiation levels at three monitoring wells around the plant spiked, in one spot by 65,000%. Patricia Kakridas, a spokeswoman for Entergy, said the source was likely “water which exited a temporary filtration system that was set up and dismantled in late January 2016” in preparation for refueling; the company said radioactive material won’t leach into drinking water.
And in March, when the plant was being refueled, a breaker tripped and cut power in one of the reactors; when the diesel generators kicked in, they died while trying to restart the first electrical system. Fortunately a second backup worked.
Because the plant is cooled in large part by water from the Hudson – up to 2.5bn gallons a day – it kills about 1 billion fish and other aquatic organisms a year.
Incidents such as these are among the reasons Cuomo wants it closed, and Indian Point is now in a vulnerable position. The operating license for Indian Point 3 expired in December. The license for Indian Point 2 expired in 2013 (Indian Point 1 was decommissioned in 1974). Yet both remain active as the company pursues a license renewal and in the meantime Spectra, a pipeline company, is planning to add a gas pipeline that runs underneath the property to the two that have been there since the plant was built.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo has called the operation of Indian Point ‘unacceptable’.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has called the operation of Indian Point ‘unacceptable’. Photograph: Mike Groll/AP
Not everyone wants the plant to close; it’s one of Buchanan’s few employers. About 1,000 people work at the plant, without counting the related businesses nearby. The town’s population is 2,060 as of the 2013 census.
Dennis Drogan, who worked at the plant from 2002 to 2003 and now owns the Bella Roma deli in the nearby village of Tarrytown, said Buchanan relies heavily on the plant and locals are stunned some of their neighbors want to shut down the place that supports their livelihood. He also said it’s safer than people say.
“Getting into the property is very, very difficult,” he said. Drogan was an electrician at the facility in the time when post-9/11 counter-terrorism restrictions were being put into effect in the plant due to its proximity to New York City. “If you want to tighten a screw, you have to say why,” he said.
Courtney Williams, a cancer researcher who lives in the area with her husband and little girl, puts it this way: “If you are looking at it really just with fresh eyes, you’re just like, ‘This is fucking insane, there’s a pipeline going through it and gas pipelines underneath it and it’s 40 years old and it’s right outside of New York and it’s leaking tritium [the radioactive hydrogen from February’s leak], this is insane! What are you doing!’ But if you’ve been working at the plant for 40 years, and you work there and your mom worked there, you’re just like, ‘Everyone’s comfortable with it here. Their families live nearby. They wouldn’t be doing anything that’s dangerous.’”
In fact, Williams’s mother used to work at the plant as a nurse. But Williams says that having handled radioactive material in her scientific training – Yale and then a PhD in biochemistry Princeton – that feeling of safety is illusory. “It’s your sense of what is dangerous. There are snake-charmers and lion-tamers whose blood pressure doesn’t go up … Doesn’t mean it’s safe! It just means they’re acclimated to that level of risk.”
Westchester, wooded, close-knit and old, is one of the original 12 counties of the province of New York, the British colony that became the Empire State. Its primary means of travel are the twisting, interlocking highways and the Metro North railway system that ends at Grand Central terminal in Manhattan. Evacuation plans for the numerous villages and towns in the 50-mile “peak injury” evacuation zone, to say nothing of most of the five boroughs, have been derided as “fantasy documents” by Northeastern University public police professor Daniel P Aldrich.
Indian Point Energy Center is about 40 miles from Central Park in mid-Manhattan
Cuomo has waged an ongoing campaign against the plant’s continued operation, citing “unacceptable” failures, especially the leak of radioactive water in February, but to no avail.
Reactors 2 and 3 remain open in part because of a regulatory quirk: There are so many complaints, called “contentions”, filed with its primary regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), that Entergy is allowed to keep Indian Point running until it can respond to all the grievances as part of its relicensing process.
Less than three weeks after the water leak, the NRC decided to honor Entergy’s request, made several years prior, that it be allowed to perform a comprehensive leak test every 15 years, rather than every 10.
How long that will take is anyone’s guess. Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC, said he could not say when (and if) a decision on the plant’s renewal would come. “I can’t give you a specific date,” he said. “Nobody would have anticipated it taking this long.”
The NRC has never declined to renew an operating license.
Sheehan said complaints about Indian Point were frequent, but they were also largely about undramatic issues. “Indian Point has had a number of issues, but they haven’t risen to the level of high safety significance,” Sheehan said. “I mean, fossil fuel plants have transformer fires.”
Paul Gallay of Riverkeeper, an activist organization close to Buchanan in Ossining that is seeking to shut down the plant, blames much of the trouble on simply age. “Indian Point is just too old, there’s too much that cannot be replaced, there are too many components that have seen too much use.”
But it continues to be used. Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ global security program in Washington DC, blames the license-renewal process itself. “The process was designed to limit the scope that could be considered, specifically the ability of the public to intervene,” Lyman said. The process was changed in 1995, Lyman explained, so that all a nuclear plant must do to address a “contention”, or objection to a way the plant has been run, is demonstrate a plan to correct a specific problem.
“We have great concerns about onsite storage of spent fuel in the pools,” Lyman said. “There’s a real risk that if that water is let out fairly rapidly either through a seismic event or a terrorist attack, that the spent fuel could actually catch fire.”
The fuel remains onsite at Indian Point, as it does at most nuclear power plants, and must be carefully maintained, for example it must be cooled for at least a decade before it can be sealed in concrete “dry casks”. Sheehan (and others) point out that moving it out of the state along Interstate 95 is impractical given the population density along the busy transport corridor. The plant has produced about 1,500 tons of waste and continues to produce more.
At this point, the license renewal process for Indian Point is scheduled through at least September of 2016 but the legacy of Indian Point, whether it closes or no, has a half-life of far, far longer.