Environment

Did It Take a Fire and an Oil Spill to Get Serious About Closing a Dangerous Nuclear Threat to 20 Million New Yorkers?

On the day of an annual Hudson River volunteer cleanup, an oily sheen covered the water from the Indian Point Nuclear Plant.

Photo Credit: Tony Fischer/Flickr

For the Hudson, last weekend was a tale of two rivers. One river was the focus of an annual volunteer cleanup. The other river was the victim of an oil spill following a nuclear plant fire.

On Saturday, some 1,500 volunteers came together to clean up the Hudson River and its tributaries as part of the fourth annual Riverkeeper Sweep, hosted by the Hudson River environmental watchdog nonprofit Riverkeeper.

Tennis legend John McEnroe, a Riverkeeper board member, joined other volunteers planting spartina at the restored Little Hell Gate Marsh on Randall's Island during Friday's kickoff event:

The cleanup, which has grown from 30 to 100 sites, stands as a prime example of successful eco-volunteerism: Last year, volunteers collected 30 tons of garbage from the region's waterways. And the project is more than just trash collection.

"We're also getting rid of invasive plants and making plantings of plants that actually belong here instead," said Riverkeeper communication director Cliff Weathers. "In all ways, we're trying to restore and revive the river. Water quality is important to all of us."

But that water quality was soon diminished when, just before 6:00 p.m., a transformer at the Indian Point nuclear plant blew, causing a fire that billowed black smoke in the sky. The blaze was extinguished by a sprinkler system and on-site personnel.

The ruptured transformer—on the non-nuclear side of Unit 3 (one of the plant's two reactors)—spilled oil into the river, creating a sheen of up to 300 feet in diameter, according to Joseph Martens, commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

"There is no doubt that oil was discharged into the Hudson River," Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters Sunday, during a visit to the plant. "Exactly how much, we don't know."

A Riverkeeper boat crew investigated the oil spill on Sunday. (image: Riverkeeper)

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) spokesman estimated the volume of spilled oil to be in the range of several thousand gallons, though that figure wasn't confirmed by either Cuomo or Martens. The cause of failure was not immediately clear.

The facility, which houses two nuclear reactors, supplies about a quarter of the electricity for New York City and Westchester County. For many years, it has been a flashpoint for environmentalists and public health advocates who want it to be shut down.

“This is a problem to be taken with the utmost seriousness,” said Riverkeeper president Paul Gallay. “Indian Point has a long, disturbing history of operational and environmental problems. The plant’s aging infrastructure has caught up to it and we must see that it is closed or these problems will only worsen with potentially catastrophic results."

The beleaguered faciility has "the capacity to create an unprecedented catastrophic event next that could impact more than 20 million who live within 50 miles of Indian Point," said Weathers. "This spill is our wake-up call."

Saturday's fire and subsequent oil spill was the latest in a long series of safety incidents since the units—located in Buchanan, New York, about 40 miles north from midtown Manhattan—were opened in the 1970s. Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for Entergy Corp., the plant's owner, said that although the reactor was safe and stable, it could be weeks before it was placed back online. Unit 2, the other reactor, was unaffected and remains in operation.

Nappi also added that the foamy substance that was used to put out the blaze contains an animal protein and fat that leaves an oily sheen on the water that is harmless to the environment.

"I've seen the oil myself," said Weathers. "While we don't know what the makeup of the transformer oil is yet, it is now washing up on shorelines across the river. It also has an acrid smell. Entergy says it's not harmful to the environment, but should we just believe them? We're calling on the NY DEC to investigate this event and not take Entergy's word for it."

Here is a video taken on Sunday by Riverkeeper that shows an oil sheen on the river's surface:

A 2003 report commissioned by then-Governor George Pataki analyzing Indian Point's evacuation plan said, "It is our conclusion that current radiological response system and capabilities are not adequate to overcome their combined weight and protect the people from an unacceptable dose of radiation in the event of a release from Indian Point."

"Many scholars have already argued that any evacuation plans shouldn’t be called plans, but rather 'fantasy documents,'"said Daniel P. Aldrich, a professor of political science at Purdue University and the author of Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West, about how governments build controversial facilities that serve citizens' needs but have potential negative consequences for host communities.

Riverkeeper notes that the Indian Point 3 reactor has only 24 minutes of fire safety insulation—nowhere near the three-hour fire barrier that the NRC requires of other nuclear plants. In 2009, former New York State Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the NRC, accusing the agency of letting Entergy "dodge necessary fire protections," but the federal judge hearing the case upheld NRC's Indian Point exemption. The plaintiffs are pursuing their claims in the district court; Riverkeeper say the case will be heard again in the coming months.

But for many activists, additional fire insulation isn't enough: They want the plant shut down and they want it shut down now.

“The history of fire safety at Indian Point is one of mistakes, illegality and failure by both Entergy and the NRC,” said Riverkeeper president Paul Gallay. “The plant should not be operated under its current fire safety regime. The plant is not cheaper, it’s not safe, and it’s not necessary. It’s time to close Indian Point and move on.”

"These situations we take very seriously," Cuomo said Saturday. "Luckily this was not a major situation." But it is decisive action—not luck—that activists want to see as the reason that their communities are safe from potential catastrophe.

For those who want a clean and safe Hudson River, Saturday's events were a Dickensian moment—a tale of two rivers that showed the best of times and the worst of times. One wonders then, if Indian Point is as dangerous and unnecessary as its detractors say, are we living in the age of wisdom, or the age of foolishness?

Reynard Loki is AlterNet's environment, food and animal rights editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at [email protected].

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