Nuclear 'Ticking Time Bomb' Is a Real Threat to New York, but the Feds Don't Seem to Care

A little more than a year ago, a transformer fire and oil spill reminded the world that Indian Point, an aging nuclear power plant, sits only about 40 miles north of midtown Manhattan. Later it was revealed that the fire was caused by a short circuit due to insulation failure in a high-voltage coil in the transformer.


Soon after, we learned that at the time of the fire, water was flooding the electrical supply room that provides power to plant safety systems. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “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…. A station blackout led to the meltdown of three nuclear reactor cores at Fukushima Dai-ichi in 2011.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists classifies the May 9, 2015 incident as a “near miss.”

A few weeks after the fire, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission met with a concerned public at its Annual Assessment for Safety of Indian Point. But many of those who attended thought that the NRC was too deferential to the claims by Entergy, Indian Point’s operator, regarding the aging nuclear plant’s safety.

Besides seeking answers regarding the transformer explosion, the public urged the NRC not to renew the licenses for Indian Point’s two reactors. The operating license for Indian Point 3 was set to expire in December 2015 and Indian Point 2’s license expired in 2013. Yet both reactors remain active as Entergy, Indian Point’s operator, continues to press for renewals. The NRC licenses new commercial power reactors for 40 years terms and can renew operating licenses for an additional 20 years. The reactors first opened in 1973 and 1975, respectively. The original Indian Point reactor was shuttered in 1974 because of its emergency cooling system was discovered to be inadequate.

The discussion to deny relicensing was all but shelved by the NRC as were comments the lingering safety issues with the plant. Those challenging relicensing left the meeting less confident than ever about the nuclear plant’s safety and the prospects of it being closed. A year later, it appears their worries are well founded.

In the months that followed, a series of mishaps, accidents and other misfortunes followed. They ranged from seemingly minor to the very troublesome. Still, each highlights the plant’s age and vulnerability.

The Unit 3 reactor was shut down because of an errant party balloon that created a short circuit in a switchyard. Later the same reactor was shut down when droppings from a large bird damaged transmission insulation. A water pump failure and a still unexplained electrical anomaly also shut down the reactor in recent months.

After each of these incidents, Entergy spokespeople were quick to point out that these problems happened in the non-nuclear side of the plant. But then, problems began to plague its nuclear operations. In December, the Unit 2 reactor was forced to shut down after its control rods, which regulate the fission rate of the nuclear fuel, lost power and fell into the core, requiring that the reactor shut down.

In February, Entergy reported a severe spike in radioactive, tritium-contaminated water leaking into the groundwater at the facility. Alarming levels of radioactivity, 740 times federal limits, were reported at three Indian Point monitoring wells, including one where levels rose 65,000 percent from 12,300 picocuries per liter to over 8 million picocuries per liter. Follow-up tests showed that the highest concentration was 80 percent higher than what was reported only a few days earlier. The leak is still being investigated, but radiation leaks like this invariably involve heavier and harmful nuclear isotopes, including Strontium-90, Cesium-137, Cobalt-60, and Nickel-63, which move much slower through the environment than tritium, which is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.

In May, it was revealed that Entergy and NRC staff had not done a proper estimate of the damage that an accident at Indian Point would create. The NRC threw out its assessment of the costs of such a catastrophic event. With this reversal, the NRC admitted that their analysis was misleading, used erroneous data and violated the National Environmental Policy Act. It also means that another analysis needs to be conducted. This reversal was a victory for New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had argued that NRC staff systematically undercounted the cost and impact of a serious nuclear incident.

Still, none of these incidents and blunders are as worrisome as the problems the Unit 2 reactor encountered in March. During an inspection required every ten years, Entergy found nearly a third of the 832 “core baffle” bolts that keep the inner plates of the reactor core from coming apart were either missing or impaired, possibly degraded by the high levels of radiation inside the reactor.

While Entergy spokespeople attempted to reassure the public that missing and damaged bolts are not uncommon, they were singing a different tune in a report to the NRC. In it, they admitted this to be a condition that “significantly degrades plant safety.” In fact, the damage to Indian Point Reactor 2’s core is four times worse than any similar problem ever seen at any other American nuclear reactor and experts believe that it could result in a lack of structural stability in the reactor.

These highly irradiated bolts perform a critical safety and operational function at the plant. Loss of a single bolt or isolated multiple failures of the baffle bolts are considered to be manageable, but catastrophic or clustered loss of multiple bolts at adjacent locations could cause a lack of structural integrity and potentially raise safety and operational concerns. Loose pieces may cause damage to critical components such as fuel rods, valves, and control rods inside the reactor. Degraded bolts can lead to damage to the core structure and eventually the fuel.

Here’s one scenario: If degraded bolts allow the core baffle and former plates to separate, “makeup” water supplied to the reactor vessel by the emergency core cooling systems could flow through these openings instead of flowing through the reactor core. If enough makeup flow bypasses the reactor core, the nuclear fuel will overheat and become damaged. The result: a substantial amount of radioactive material is released from the damaged fuel rods and out of the reactor vessel through a ruptured pipe.

Yet, we haven’t seen much concern about the impaired bolts from the NRC. The regulators are not conducting their own extensive root-cause analysis to find out exactly why so many bolts failed. In fact, the Unit 2 reactor will re-open in a few weeks without anyone really knowing exactly why the bolts failed. Entergy has said that it will conduct its own root-cause analysis, but are currently conducting repairs without completing this review.

“This is a matter of common sense denied: if a machine breaks, you have to figure out what is wrong and then fix it,” said Damon Moglen of Friends of the Earth. “Instead, at Indian Point, Entergy has decided that the priority is to get the damaged reactor up and running by summer to protect their profits. They are making a theoretical fix to a serious but undiagnosed problem. This is a recipe for disaster.”

Even more curious, on the eve of yet another Annual Assessment, the NRC awarded Indian Point a clean bill of health, saying that the plant operated safely over the past year. This news drew the ire of New York Governor Cuomo, who renewed his call for Indian Point’s closure.

"We know we can find replacement power. Why you would allow Indian Point to continue to operate defies common sense, planning and basic sanity," said Cuomo.

Meet the ‘regulators’

While Cuomo’s office did not send a representative to the June 8 Annual Assessment, many other groups and individuals challenging Indian Point’s continued operation attended. They included Friends of the Earth, Hudson Clearwater, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC), and Riverkeeper. Regional politicians, including a New York town supervisor and three nearby county legislators came to speak out against the plant. Alden Wolfe the Chair of the Rockland County Legislature, came to warn that “Indian Point is a ticking time bomb. People’s lives are at risk every day that this nuclear power plant remains in operation.”

David Freeman, the former president of the New York Power Authority,  who joined these groups and politicians in a press conference, said the NRC had ceased doing its job, and called for a “righteous” public movement to close Indian Point.  

Many others chided the NRC officials, as well as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (which was not represented) for greenlighting a natural gas pipeline that is planned to pass right by Indian Point. The Algonquin Incremental Market, also known as AIM or the Algonquin Pipeline, moves fracked natural gas to market in the Northeastern United States, but doesn’t benefit consumers in New York.

The AIM Project involves the placement of a new, high-volume natural gas pipeline which will run only some 1,600 feet from Indian Point’s nuclear reactors and 105 feet from vital structures that are necessary to prevent core damage and the major release of radioactive materials to the environment. Twice, the NRC has rejected for a petition alleging that faulty calculations were used to estimate the risk the pipeline to Indian Point's reactors.

Many present at this year’s Annual Assessment, held at a hotel in Tarrytown, NY, urged the NRC not to rubber stamp the pipeline project, but allow for a transparent, fully independent and publicly reviewable risk study. Again, the suggestion seemed to fall on deaf ears of the NRC officials, causing some anger in the audience.

“You no longer have any credibility,” Judy Allen, a nearby resident said to the NRC officials. “You have become a lapdog for Entergy,” she added. “Putting a 42-inch gas pipeline next to Indian Point is pure insanity.”

Let’s put this the NRC’s inaction into perspective: Most federal regulatory agencies put the safety and welfare of the public before the benefit of the industry they monitor.

For example, if a commercial airliner had significant and unforeseen structural damage, not only would the Federal Aviation Administration ground that very plane and perform its own root cause analysis, it would demand inspections of aircraft of the same model — as it has many times in the past — to find out whether the defect is systemic or just a fluke.

The case for replacing Indian Point

Though malfunctions can happen at any type of power plant, they’re happening with alarming frequency at this aging nuclear facility. But if the ongoing malfunctions and the NRC’s lack of leadership aren’t frightening enough, consider these:

Then there’s the slaughter of Hudson River fish to consider: Indian Point cooling system sucks water from the Hudson River and in the process kills more than a billion eggs and small fish each year. Closing Indian Point would be a step toward restoration of species in decline.

Meanwhile, a huge increase in the availability of replacement power is available from renewables and new and refurbished energy sources. This, combined with improvements in energy efficiency, mean that Indian Point’s 2,000 megawatts, about 10 percent of peak summer demand in the New York metropolitan area, is no longer needed, even during the hot summer months.

Some 1,500 megawatts of energy capacity from other sources takes up some of the slack. They include existing electricity surpluses in the region, recently restored power generation from plants in the Hudson Valley and New York City, transmission improvements in the Hudson Valley power grid, and targeted energy efficiency gains met by utility supplier Con Edison.

And, according to the New York Independent System Operator, the nonprofit agency charged with managing the state’s electricity market, downstate load forecasts for this summer have dropped by about 500 megawatts, due to increases in solar power installations, and improved energy efficiency and demand-side management.

Indian Point can be closed now and we can reliably keep the lights on with little or no impact on regional electricity prices. Soon, additional efficiency and renewable energy projects will make the region less reliant on fossil-fuel plants and drive still greater savings, thanks to $5 billion in planned energy investments by New York State.

Despite what Entergy and the NRC tell us, Indian Point is not safe, not secure and not vital to the region. Like anything mechanical, such as an appliance or a car, Indian Point is becoming more unreliable as it ages, and a very bad year filled with mishaps and accidents provides ample evidence of that. New Yorkers no longer have hold their breath and rely on this decrepit nuclear plant. It’s time to close Indian Point, before it closes New York.

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