February 17, 2012

Indian Point future in hands of NRC

As the New York State Assembly considers replacement energy for Indian Point, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission demands severe accident mitigation assessment and remediation from the plant’s owners, the NRC may be taking note of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s and the state DEC’s efforts to prevent relicensing of the nuclear plant.

The plant is seeking a 20-year extension, beginning in 2013 and 2015, for each of the two reactors, Indian Point 2 and 3, which were built in 1973 and 1975, respectively. Indian Point 1 is closed.

But even if the state opposes relicensing the plant — which over the course of its life has been listed among the most troubled in the nation — their decision may not have much weight. Regulatory power rests with the federal agency and considers only limited parameters in assessing relicensing.

“The NRC has not found anything that would prevent relicensing of Indian Point,” said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC, early this year.

Due to Indian Point’s vulnerability to terrorism, a laundry list of safety problems, the storage of 1,500 tons of radioactive waste on-site — far more than at Fukushima — seismic vulnerability and the lack of a workable evacuation plan, residents and officials have been working toward the permanent shutdown of the nuclear power plant.

While Gov. Cuomo, the Public Service Commission and the New York State Independent Systems Operator, which manages the integration of the electrical grid, buying, selling and distributing power in New York State, are all in agreement that the power can be replaced, that decision may be subject to political winds not in Albany, but in Washington, D.C.

A recent decision in Vermont overturning the state’s decision to shut down Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant may complicate legal issues. U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha ruled Jan. 19 in Brattleboro that lawmakers were seeking to shutter Vermont Yankee for an impermissible reason. He said that their main concern, despite the state’s denials, was the safety of the plant and that federal law preempts states from acting on matters of nuclear safety, leaving the issue to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NRC still underestimates the danger posed to Indian Point from seismic activity. An accident at one of Indian Point’s reactors on the scale of the recent catastrophe in Japan could send a fallout plume south to the New York City metropolitan area, require the sheltering or evacuation of millions of people, and cost from 10 to 100 times more than Fukushima’s disaster.

The estimated cost for cleanup and compensation for the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants alone is at about $60 billion and counting. The metro New York City area represents 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. The costs of a severe accident at Indian Point would be significantly higher because of the value of real estate and economic activity that would be lost in its wake. In addition to 20 million people, the income generated in a 50-mile radius represents $1 trillion, or 9 percent of the nation’s GDP.

It is not yet clear which way the decision will go. The Vermont decision bodes well for Entergy and proponents of the plant, and a New York City court granted safety exemptions for review of fire hazards. However, the NRC recently called on Entergy to complete a severe accident mitigation assessment and remediation analysis prior to relicensing in 2013 and 2015. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff has denied the majority of requests for exemptions from fire protection requirements at Indian Point Units 2 and 3,” stated the NRC.

Last year New York State denied water-quality certification for the plant because it did not find the water-cooling systems sufficient. The NRC cannot renew the licenses without this, and Entergy is currently appealing this finding.

And without an adequate storage alternative for spent nuclear fuel casks, the federal agency may be hard-pressed to allow additional nuclear waste to continue to be stored at the Buchanan plant. (Complicating the issue is Yucca Mountain and the debate about a centralized waste storage; people on both sides are pro and con for different reasons, but it is a political hot tamale. Also, the federal government has been taking money — lots of it — for years from these utilities to build a centralized waste storage. This under the promise to take the waste off their hands. If they start disallowing plants because there is too much waste stored on-site next to major cities, would they get sued? Would it be considered their fault and thus not a reason to shut down the facility? This is not something anyone wants raised this election year.

State and federal legal skirmishes are likely to continue full force in the years ahead.

The question remains, will the NRC acknowledge state and local decisions regarding the plant, or will they override them again and again? Is it fair to say they see it as their duty to override them for the national good, that is, promoting domestic energy, American industry and reducing use of fossil fuels?

Even if this is the case, even the NRC would have a hard time denying that the risk-benefit equation has tipped drastically in favor of closing the plant. In light of Fukushima why would we continue to allow a troubled plant with overstocked storage and leaking fuel pools to function in proximity to the New York metropolitan area? It would seem like common sense that the NRC should now exercise extreme scrutiny at this unusual location before relicensing.

A lot is at stake: the ability of states to make their own decisions as to how to best safeguard their citizens in providing clean, affordable energy remains in the balance.

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