Environment

Why on Earth Did the Feds Approve a High-Pressure Gas Pipeline Near a Nuke Plant?

Nuclear safety expert: "We're talking tens of millions of people who could be endangered."

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

A gas explosion leveled two buildings in New York’s East Village this past week, with two neighboring structures damaged, one still at risk for collapse, and 22 people injured, four of them severely. The fire raged from early afternoon into the next morning with more than 250 firefighters responding. Just over a year ago, a gas explosion leveled two buildings in Harlem, killing eight people. The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet released its conclusions as to what caused the Harlem fire.

While fires, explosions, plane crashes and others disasters are considered newsworthy, drawing people and the media to the scene, the quiet dramas of government policy, approval and planning that set the stage for—or can prevent—disastrous events are every bit as riveting.

Many accidents occur due to unavoidable human or material error, such as inadequate inspection, corroded pipes or faulty valves. But some accidents arise when two things never meant to happen at the same time and place just do. Like the tsunami that overwhelmed inadequate safety protections at the aging Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. That deadly event exemplifies what the National Transportation Safety Board defines as “interactive threats,” two or more high-risk conditions that unpredictably meet and produce an outcome far worse than the risks of either one acting alone.

Since March 3, 2015, three high-risk conditions have begun converging north of the New York metro area: the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant; a high pressure, high-volume gas pipeline; and an authorization by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build a new segment of the pipeline in close proximity to the nuclear plant. In the few weeks since the authorization, apart from some felled trees in Yorktown Heights, there have been few visible signs that millions of New Yorkers may soon be living with the increased risk of a fiery, pipeline-triggered nuclear accident, 37 miles north of the City.

In its ruling, with the approval of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, FERC granted the pipeline company, Spectra Energy a “conditional certificate of public convenience and necessity” to build the Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) pipeline, one segment of the extended pipeline slated to carry fracked shale gas from Pennsylvania into New England. It will go directly along the outer perimeter of the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

A 2015 NTSB safety report detailed 119 “incidents” in gas transmission pipelines last year. The report also noted a mounting frequency of these incidents in what it called areas of “high consequence.” The NSTB found that “inadequate evaluation of interactive threats” leads pipeline operators to “underestimate the true magnitude of risks to a pipeline.”

In close proximity to one of this country’s major cities, Indian Point is certainly a “high-consequence” location. The quartet of organizations responsible for safety guarantees, which include the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, FERC, Entergy (the plant owners) and Spectra (the pipeline company) all claim the pipeline poses no risk to the nuclear power plant.

“Because of the distance of the proposed Project from the IPEC (Indian Point Energy Center) generating facilities and the avoidance and mitigation measures that it would implement, the proposed route would not pose any new safety hazards to the IPEC facility,” states the FERC-issued Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). 

In line with the above, no emergency response plan has been submitted, say two independent safety experts. The experts claim to have uncovered evidence that the approval was based on unsupported safety promises, misused data and circumvented safety regulations, all provided by the NRC and Entergy. The closest point between the pipeline and plant infrastructures, according to one of the two engineers who assessed the plans, would be 105 feet from nuclear power structures in a significant seismic zone and densely populated region. An accident or failure of the new pipeline could result in a catastrophic explosion and release of the facility’s 40 years of radioactive spent fuel, rendering all of Westchester County, New York City and much of Connecticut and Long Island uninhabitable for generations.

The pipeline would be located approximately 2,500 feet (about half a mile or 10 city blocks) from the nuclear reactors themselves.

In a February 2015 letter, both New York senators, Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, asked FERC to delay its final decision until a “thorough, independent review of all the project’s potential impacts is completed and made available to the public, with full opportunity for comment and review, including additional public meetings.”

Schumer, who is the ranking member of the Committee on Rules and Administration, also sits on the powerful Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees. However, FERC overruled the senators’ request and went on to issue its final ruling a few weeks later.

Safety Experts

According to Susan Van Dolsen, a co-founder of SAPE2016, an advocacy group opposing the pipeline, many residents of Westchester county, with its upscale bedroom communities of high-earning professionals, are dismayed at the expected plummet of their quality of life and property values due to the pollution, noise and industrial activity the pipeline and the compressor stations along its pathway will bring.

The town of Cortlandt engaged the services of two independent scientific experts to determine the validity of concerns about whether the new pipeline increases the odds of a nuclear event. Richard Kuprewicz is a pipeline regulatory and safety advisor, incident investigator, and expert witness on gas pipeline risk analysis, while Paul Blanch is an engineer with 45 years of experience in nuclear safety, engineering operations and federal regulatory requirements. Each has the expertise (and the appropriate security clearances) to probe what Kuprewicz calls the main question: “In the event of a pipeline rupture, can the nuke plant be failsafe shut down?”

Danger of Fiery Explosions Due to Pipeline Ruptures

The primary pipeline safety risk is ruptures. When a gas pipeline ruptured in San Bruno, California in 2010, it leveled a Bay Area neighborhood and killed eight people, incurring $1.4 billion in damages. The San Bruno pipeline was much smaller and carried less gas at a lower pressure than the proposed Spectra pipeline in Westchester County.

With nearly 300,000 miles of gas pipelines in the U.S. (according to the National Transportation Safety Board), “the management of gas transmission pipelines requires expert knowledge and integration of multiple disciplines to detect potential problems.” 

A recent NTSB study focused specifically on “high consequence areas, where an accident could cause the most damage and loss of lives.” From 2010–2013, gas pipelines were “over-represented in documented incidents in such high consequence areas.” When the NTSB investigated three major gas transmission pipeline accidents— in Palm City, FLA (2009), San Bruno, CA (2010) and Sissonville, WVA (2012)— it attributed them to “deficiencies” in the operators’ plans and oversight. 

At Indian Point, neither the Nuclear Regulatory Commission nor FERC will require electronic safety features to automatically shut down the pipeline in the event of leaks, ruptures or explosions. Instead, Spectra, the pipeline company, will monitor the pipeline from Houston, with the promise that upon viewing a drop in pressure within the distant pipeline, the Houston employees could close safety valves within three minutes.”

Spectra’s report gives “the impression that [they] will actually stop the gas burning, or the gas explosions, within a three-minute time period,” says Kuprewicz. “But they won't see pressure drop alarms for quite a while in the control room 1,000 miles away.”

The actual sequence of events following a pipeline rupture make the delay nearly inevitable, says Kuprewicz. In the aftermath of a rupture, there are big blasts and multiple explosions, as one or more huge fireballs rise a couple of hundred feet into the air.

“The tonnage releases on these large diameter pipelines are such that you can expect to see multiple detonations, multiple blasts,” he notes. These “cast out pipe steel in all directions and the steel forms these huge craters.” The gas roars out of the pipe at a velocity higher than the speed of sound. Given the confusion at the site in the aftermath of a rupture, “it's going to be a while before somebody in a control room gets the word that you might have a rupture.”

In the aftermath of a rupture, there are often delays in pressure monitoring devices in the control room, he says.

Long after the wait for valve closure, which Kuprewicz says could take a minimum of 20 minutes, and sometimes up to several hours, high temperature fires can continue to burn. “In the San Bruno pipeline rupture, a slightly different animal, smaller line, lower pressure, that burned for over 90 minutes,” says Kuprewicz. “The gas will explode and burn for quite a period of time.”

The pipeline valves are three miles apart, so that shut down or not, at the minimum three miles of gas (if the rupture occurred between two valves) and possibly as many as six miles of gas (if the rupture occurred at a valve site) could be released to fuel the fire.

Given his experience with rupture-precipitated fires, Kuprewicz is concerned about “the tremendous amount of heat flux generated from these high-tonnage release gas transmission pipeline ruptures that have ignited…The higher the heat flux, the longer the duration, the more damage that can occur. I have seen the heat fluxes so high that they will liquefy steel at a distance and vaporize aluminum.”

Kuprewicz adds, “I would expect extensive damage to auxiliary equipment such as transmission pipelines and equipment that might be related to fail-safe shutdown of the reactor facilities themselves.”

How near would a rupture-triggered fire be to nuclear plan structures? Paul Blanch, the nuclear safety expert, explained, “we have the gas turbine fuel oil tanks that are located in a very close proximity to the pipeline. They hold hundreds, maybe millions of gallons of burning jet fuel oil which would ignite and flow downhill into safety-related structures, including the switchyard, transformers, as well as vital tanks that are used for cooling which are in the high-heat flux and blast radius.”

In this scenario, a rupture “would disable all emergency generators, and then we have compounding problems. The fire takes out incoming power, and we wind up with no AC power on unit 2. Even backup generators would be inoperable. This scenario is similar to Fukushima. The primary reason they had a meltdown is because they lost all power. Batteries just last so long and they won’t cool the reactor,” Blanch explains.

Inadequate Safety Evaluation

Blanch initiated a FOIA request to evaluate the basis for the NRC’s assurance of a three-minute shutdown. In carefully studying the NRC analysis, and evaluating the accompanying data and references, Blanch found nothing to support a three-minute shutdown. Instead it turned out that the NRC had based its evaluation on an old 1986 EPA methodology, called the ALOHA program. As a result, the NRC vastly underestimated the risks.

“The ALOHA program itself says that it is not be used for this type of pipeline,” Blanch explains. “It applies to a gas line connected to a gas tank. It does not apply to a break in a continuous gas transmission line. You can’t use it where there are chemical leaks or fires. But the NRC used it to determine the safety of the Spectra pipeline.”

There were other errors and unsupported conclusions in the analysis, Blanch says.

For example, the determination of the statistical likelihood of a total rupture. According to the documents Blanch evaluated, the NRC analysis assumes that a total pipe rupture will occur in only 1% of the pipeline accidents. However, according to Blanch, the references accompanying that analysis clearly state that total ruptures occur in 20% of such accidents.

Another question remains “what are the odds of a pipeline rupture triggering a nuclear event?” According to Blanch, the NRC estimated those odds as approximately seven in 100 million years, which, according to NRC regulations, is considered an acceptable level of risk. However when Blanch recalculated the risk projection based on a 20% rate of pipeline accidents and the corrected size and velocity of the planned pipeline, the risk turned out to be one in 1000 years. This Blanch calls, “an unacceptable probability and a clear violation of NRC regulations.”

Blanch says that the evaluation done by the NRC is not commonly needed because “there just aren’t that many nuclear power plants in the vicinity of high speed gas transmission pipelines.” He wrote to the NRC engineer who prepared the safety analysis to point out that the rationale for the approval failed to follow NRC regulations. The NRC engineer told Blanch that he was not “familiar with the regulations and that is the responsibility of a different division within the NRC.”

From the evidence, both safety experts expressed concern that two federal agencies, the NRC and FERC, signed off on the three-minute shutdown promise, and underestimated the likelihood of an accident, based on miscalculations and inapplicable data.

“What you have in this matter are the agencies (including FERC) not having the specialized expertise and/or the willingness to challenge bogus information [concerning safety] near a nuclear plant— it’s unbelievable,” said Kuprewicz.

“The NRC is not an independent agency,” Blanch says. “They are so tied to the nuclear industry and so concerned that the industry will die, that they will minimize the impact of any possible event to lessen damage to the nuclear industry.”

Interactive Threats

“We have significant safety issues, and we're not talking about [California] where it killed seven people. We are talking tens of millions of people who could be endangered by releases from Indian Point,” says Blanch, who describes himself as “pro-nuclear.” “I’m not one of those environmentalists,” he said. “In my opinion, we need both nuclear power and this gas pipeline.” Blanch recommends that the pipeline be re-routed away from Indian Point, which he estimates would cost $2 to $3 billion.

Blanch has filed a petition alleging wrongdoing by Entergy in submitting inaccurate and incomplete information. He says it also “appears to me that the NRC has already made a determination in its inspection report that this information is accurate.”

For Blanch, this raises the question, “how can we be assured of an independent assessment of this petition if it's the same chain of command that has already approved and said this information is accurate?”

“It is irresponsible to take a recommendation from a company like Spectra that wants their business to be here, and not independently validate it. The safety of the people in the region should take precedence over the interests of two energy production companies,” says New York State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef. “There is no other place in this country where a gas pipeline comes as close to a nuclear power plant as it does here, so it requires above and beyond oversight and analysis.”

With the “inadequate evaluation of interactive threats” in “high consequence zones” now aimed at this country’s largest urban population, Blanch is repeating the call for an independent review, similar to the one that Senators Schumer and Gillibrand have already requested.

“Failure of any of these gas pipelines could result in a total loss of cooling to the reactor cores and the inventory of spent fuel. Spectra Energy and Entergy have made no provisions to address this type of event,” Blanch wrote to New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

“Some of the possible consequences of a gas pipeline fire or explosion at Indian Point include loss of power to the entire site, secondary fires from liquid fuel storage tanks, reactor core damage and melting, asphyxiation of site personnel, spent fuel radioactivity release, and massive social and economic damage for generations. None of these possible outcomes are being addressed.”

Alison Rose Levy @alisonroselevy writes on health, food and the environment. Her website is healthjournalistblog.com and her weekly radio program on Progressive Radio is Connect the Dots.

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