U.S. Court of Appeals Asked to Block Restart of Damaged Indian Point Nuclear Reactor

[Editor's note: Update, June 17: On Thursday, the judge gave a preliminary ruling that the NRC must respond to the Friends of the Earth emergency petition by June 21, and not defer it. The court denied interim relief to keep IP-2 offline in the meantime. However, it was reported on Friday that IP-2 has returned to service.]

Friends of the Earth and other environmental organizations filed an emergency petition Thursday with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit asking that the court compel the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to prevent Entergy from restarting an aging Indian Point nuclear reactor in Buchanan, New York, which was found to have unprecedented parts failure in its critical core cooling system. Entergy, the owner and operator of Indian Point, has repeatedly stated that it intends to start the reactor within days.

The degradation and/or disappearance of more than 1 in 3 critical bolts in the Indian Point Unit 2 nuclear reactor cooling system was revealed during a refueling outage in March. Despite the unprecedented failure of critical bolts—damage greater than that seen in any reactor before in either the U.S. or around the globe—Entergy immediately announced plans to restart the reactor in June after simply replacing the bolts.

Previously, on May 24, Friends of the Earth (FOE) filed an emergency petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calling for intervention by the Commissioners of the agency to prevent restart of the reactor until the Commission had fully diagnosed the root cause of the degradation and determined that the unit was safe to operate despite the failure of more than a third of the bolts. That petition also called for an immediate shutdown of the damaged reactor's twin, reactor Unit 3, to determine whether the reactor's bolts have also disintegrated.

Instead of the Commissioners ruling on the FOE Emergency Petition, a staff review board sent Friends of the Earth an email on June 3 announcing that the emergency petition had been referred to staff for review under the so-called 2.206 process which normally takes years to complete. The staff board denied FOE's request for emergency action to prevent restart of Unit 2 with no rationale or evidence to support that determination. Without action by a federal court, Indian Point 2 will be restarted, long before the NRC's 2.206 process is completed.

In response, FOE, joined by the Nuclear Information Resource Service and Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, have filed the emergency petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for writ of mandamus (agency action unreasonably delayed) to prevent restart of the flawed reactor while the NRC considers FOE's request for the NRC to determine whether the unit can be made safe to operate. Given concerns that Entergy is racing to restart unit 2 in the face of mounting opposition, the petition asks that the Court issue an order directing the NRC to compel Entergy to power down reactor unit 2 pending final adjudication of the petition, in case the reactor has been rushed into service already.

Neither Entergy nor the NRC has provided a root cause analysis of the unprecedented degradation of bolts at Indian Point 2. Entergy hypothesizes that the bolts became brittle because of exposure to radiation and a hostile high temperature environment, but it offered no analysis to support it. In fact, Entergy has simply replaced the bolts  without providing an analysis of why so many bolts were degraded at Indian Point (one-third) compared with other similar reactors (average less than 3 per cent), or whether the remaining 557 bolts can be expected to hold, despite being exposed to the same environment. The company's objective is to restart the reactor in June, in time for the profitable peak summer air conditioning season. It has said that it will conduct an analysis of why the bolts broke or disappeared, but appears not willing to delay restarting Unit 2 under such a review has been done.

This is a matter of common sense denied: if a machine breaks, you have to figure out what is wrong and then fix it. 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. And the NRC is acting like a lap dog and not the watchdog assuring that the reactors are safe to operate. It has been repeatedly suggested that the NRC is a 'captured' agency, captive of the very industry they are directed by Congress to regulate. This is a disgraceful and shocking example of that corporate capture.

 "In my day, the NRC was a real, independent regulator," said Dave Freeman, who was the head of the New York Power Authority in the mid-1990s, which operated the Indian Point nuclear reactors at that time. "Now the agency seems primarily concerned with facilitating rather than regulating the nuclear industry."

Just as the Space Shuttle Challenger was brought down by a seemingly minor faulty O-ring, Indian Point is in danger from untimely degradation and damage to key bolts. Located a mere 26 miles from New York City, a radiation release at Indian Point could reach Times Square in as little as 90 minutes in the right weather conditions, making evacuation of New York City impossible. The Indian Point reactors' licenses expired in 2013 and 2015, respectively, and the plant is operating beyond its 40-year life span while the NRC considers whether to extend the license for an additional 20 years.

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