(MintPress) – “Indian Point puts a lot of people at risk. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is working on new analyses saying ‘look how safe we are’ — The problem is, this was happening when reactors were blowing up in Japan,” said Jim Riccio, a Nuclear Policy analyst for Greenpeace in a recent statement to Mint Press News..
Approaching its 40th year of operation, The Indian Point nuclear facility is in a rapid state of decline, increasing the possibility of a nuclear disaster near New York City, the most populous city in the United States.
The NRC, a government agency entrusted with ensuring the safety of nuclear power in the U.S., has given power companies carte blanche to run plants far past their safe dates of operation. Approaching a license renewal in 2014, many New Yorkers fear that the NRC will continue its rubber stamping policy, putting millions of lives potentially at risk by giving Indian Point a permit for another 20 years of operation.
The Indian Point nuclear facility is located in Buchanan, N.Y., just 38 miles north of New York City. The plant produces 30 percent of electricity used in New York City and Westchester County. With no carbon emissions, nuclear power admittedly offers a cleaner form of energy than coal and oil burning plants. However, in the event of disaster, the consequences would be devastating for humans and the environment, like that seen after the Fukushima disaster.
The facility has already experienced its fair share of mishaps in its nearly 40-year history, including several internal fires in recent years. The owner of Indian Point agreed to pay a $1.2 million dollar fine in November 2010 after a transformer explosion at the Unit 2 reactor spilled oil into the Hudson River.
Previously in 2007, a transformer in Unit 3 caught fire causing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to increase its level of inspections. The NRC noted that the plant had experienced a relatively high number of unplanned shutdowns leading up to the incident.
Neither incident involved the release of any nuclear material and both incidents were classified as “low level emergencies.” While continued operation of Indian Point shouldn’t be cause for “Chernobylesque” hysteria, these problems could increase in frequency and size as the facility ages.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has taken an ambiguous stance regarding other environmental issues like hydraulic fracturing, has expressed his desire to close the two reactors at Indian point. The main reactors are up for relicensing in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
Risk of Meltdown
The risk of a meltdown remains unlikely, but possible given the age of the facility. An earthquake, the worst case scenario for any nuclear plant, could spell disaster for Indian Point, which sits a stone’s throw away from most populated city in the U.S. There are more than 17.5 million people living within a 100-mile radius of that facility.
Based on NRC data, the strongest earthquake Indian Point could withstand without a meltdown is a 6.1 on the Richter scale. However, experts say that based upon geological data, an earthquake as strong as 7.0 is possible, leaving open the possibility, however remote, of a full nuclear meltdown.
While it is difficult to predict the exact size and location of earthquakes even using the most advanced methods available to geologists and seismologists, some believe that the change of such a quake based upon available data is higher than previously expected. The Earth Institute at Columbia University has fixed the chance of a magnitude 6.0 quake at 7 percent and a 7.0 quake at 1.5 percent during any given 50-year time span at the Indian point power plant.
Experts also point to the risk of a terrorist attack on the facility, a possibility considered by the Sept. 11 hijackers. “The reason that I came back to Greenpeace is because of 9/11, Jim Riccio said. “The 9-11 Commission shows that Muhammad Atta thought of targeting Indian Point. It is a bad place to put a reactor; if something goes wrong there is no way to get people out.”
Learning From Fukushima
While the anti-nuclear movement has sustained protests internationally since the start of the Cold War, events drawing attention to the risks of using nuclear power have stirred public opposition. Most recently, a devastating earthquake and tsunami led to a dangerous, but containable situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan on March 11, 2011.
After tidal waves flooded the facility, shutting down the emergency generators, the plant had no emergency power to keep reactors cool. Although there were no deaths reported on account of the nuclear emergency, evacuations were ordered for people living within a 50-mile zone of the plant.
Incidents like Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile island are few and far between. However, the risks increase markedly as facilities age and oversight remains spotty at best.
There are currently 104 nuclear facilities in the U.S., providing 19.6 percent of U.S. energy output — this according to 2008 statistics published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Most concerning to activists is the fact that half of the 104 nuclear facilities are more than 30 years old, meaning more of America’s aging nuclear facilities will be used past their expected dates of operation.
Troubling too is the fact that 23 of these reactors have the same design as the failed nuclear reactors in Japan. Additionally, there are 27 nuclear plants located in areas where strong earthquakes could occur greater than the tolerances facilities are designed to withstand.
The strength of the NRC
Shutting down unsafe facilities remains nearly impossible given the strength of the NRC and its strong support for license renewal. The licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) remains dubious at best, and many environmental activists and community advocates believe that the NRC favors extending the operating lives of nuclear plants long past safe dates of operation.
A report by Al Jazeera shows that the NRC, once an effective government agency overseeing nuclear power in the U.S., has now become understaffed and incapable of fully monitoring all 104 nuclear power plants and all their components.
Currently the NRC only has the ability to oversee operations at 5 to 10 percent of facilities. The bigger problem is one of a close relationship between the NRC and nuclear power industry.
“People don’t trust the NRC. They think its the lapdog of the industry, basically its there to affirm everything the industry does and its too cozy with the industry,” said journalist Bob Audette. Audette, a longtime reporter with the Brattleboro Reformer, has covered the battle Vermonters have waged attempting to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power facility.
This point is confirmed by environmentalist groups concerned about the state of government oversight. “There is a revolving door between the industry and the NRC. The day that Vermont Yankee was relicensed was the day Fukushima was blowing up. This shows the extent to which the NRC is close to the industry,” added Riccio. “I’m not saying the NRC is a criminal enterprise, but little has changed at this point.”
Concerned citizens and state governments are powerless to change the status quo unless evidence is provided to current operations that the facilities pose an environmental threat. All matters regarding plant safety are the job of the NRC.
“Because of the Atomic Energy Act, you can’t talk about safety. You’ve got New York working on water safety issues because if you mention the word ‘safety,’ the NRC will say — ‘That is our job,’” added Riccio.
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