Inside America’s Most Dangerous Nuclear Power Plant
These are desperate days for Entergy, the big Arkansas-based power conglomerate that owns the frail Indian Point nuclear plant, located on the east bank of the Hudson River outside Buchanan, New York-just 22 miles from Manhattan.
First, a scathing report by a nuclear engineer fingered Indian Point as one of five worst nuclear plants in the United States and predicted that its emergency cooling system "is virtually certain to fail."
This damning disclosure was hotly followed by the release of a study conducted by the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which ominously concluded that the chances of a reactor meltdown increase by nearly a factor of 100 at Indian Point because the plant’s drainage pits (also known as containment sumps) are "almost certain" to be blocked with debris during an accident.
"The NRC has known about the containment sump problem at Indian Point since September 1996, but currently plans to fix it only by March 2007," says David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists who. "The NRC cannot take more than a decade to fix a safety problem that places millions of Americans at undue risk."
Entergy and the NRC both downplayed the meltdown scenario and defended the leisurely pace of the planned repairs, which won’t start until 2007. Entergy says that there’s no rush to fix the problems with the emergency system because a breakdown isn’t likely in the first place.
But that’s flirting with almost certain disaster. Entergy and the NRC are staking the lives of millions on odds of a single water pipe not breaking under pressure. The problem is that these very kinds of pipes have corroded and been breached at other nuclear plants featuring similar pressurized water design. At the Davis-Bessie plant near Toledo, Ohio, a vessel head on one of the cooling water pipes had been nearly corroded away by acid and was dangerously close to rupturing.
The cooling water in these pipes is kept at a pressure of 2,200 pounds per square inch. If a pipe breaks, the 500-degree water would blow off as steam, tearing off plant insulation and coatings. The escaped water will pour into the plant’s basement, where sump pumps are meant to draw the water back into the reactor core. But the Los Alamos tests showed that the cooling water would collect debris along the way that will clog up the mesh screens on the pipes leading back into the reactor. If this happens, the cooling of the reactor fuel would stop, the radioactive core would start to melt and the plant will belch a radioactive plume that will threaten millions downwind.
All this would happen very fast. The Indian Point 2 reactor would exhaust all of its cooling water in less than 23 minutes, while the number 3 reactor would consume all of its water in only 14 minutes. Try getting a nuclear plumber that quickly.
Yes, it sounds trite, but that’s essentially what Entergy proposes as its quick fix to the meltdown scenario. Jim Steets, Entergy’s spokesman on Indian Point matters, told the New York Times last month that the company was training its workers to scour the plant for flaking paint and potential debris and that if an accident occurred they would pump the water into the core more slowly, a plan that would buy plant managers and executives a few more minutes to flee the scene.
Where people would go and how they would get there in the event of a nuclear meltdown or other radioactive release at Indian Point is unclear. In September 2002, New York Governor George Pataki commissioned a report on Indian Point’s evacuation plan. He picked James Lee Witt, the former Rose Law Firm attorney who served as head of FEMA during the Clinton administration, to oversee the investigation. At the time, Pataki said that he would support closure of the plant if Witt’s report revealed that communities near the plant could not be safely evacuated.
Witt submitted his report on January 10, 2003. While somewhat timid and cautious, Witt concluded that Entergy’s off-site evacuation plans for Indian Point were woefully inadequate.
Witt wrote: "It is our conclusion that the 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, especially if the release is faster or larger than the design basis release."
In the end, Witt concluded that it was not possible to fix the evacuation plan, given the problems at the plant, the density of the nearby communities and looming security threats.
This sobering scenario was followed by news that a review of the company’s security record revealed that Entergy, in cahoots with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, faked a test designed to determine whether the plant is vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
In an August letter, the NRC assured members of Congress that Entergy had developed a "strong defensive strategy and capability" for the plant and passed with flying colors a so-called "force-on-force" test, a mock assault.
In turns out, however, that the NRC gave Entergy officials months of advance warning about the test and then, as the Indian Point team cribbed for the exam, dumbed down the assault to ensure that they would pass.
Most assessments by the CIA and other intelligence agencies suggest that an assault on a nuclear plant would require a squad-sized force of between 12 and 14 attackers, who would assault the plant by night, armed with explosives, machine guns with armor-penetrating bullets, and rocket-propelled grenades.
This isn’t the attack that was repelled by the Entergy security team. Instead, Entergy’s men battled off a squad of 4 mock terrorists, armed only with hunting rifles, who assaulted the plant in broad daylight. Moreover, the attacking squad weren’t former Delta Force operatives trained in terrorist tactics, but security officers from a nearby nuclear plant who assault the plant from only one point after crossing open fields in plain view of Indian Point’s security guards.
Just to make sure that there were no surprises, the Entergy security team, which consisted largely of guards hired only for the test, was warned that a mock attack would take place sometime within the next hour. Even under these rigged conditions, Entergy barely passed the security test.
Environmentalists and anti-nuke activists living near the plant hoped this would be the final straw for the aging reactor. They marshaled their evidence of safety violations, inept evacuation plans and lax security and headed off to offices of the most powerful Democrat in America, Hillary Clinton.
But Hillary has remained about reserved as Pataki on Indian Point, issuing robotic requests for more studies but refusing to call for the plant’s closure. Not that her words mean much. Last month, she pledged to filibuster the nomination of Utah governor Mike Leavitt for director of the EPA. She ended up voting to confirm his nomination.
Of course, Hillary’s ties to Entergy are almost primal. The Little Rock-based Entergy Corporation, which once employed John Huang, the infamous conduit to the Lippo Group, was one of Bill Clinton’s main political sponsors, shoveling more than $100,000 into his political coffers from 1992 to 1996.
The more plaintive the cries for Indian Point’s closure, the more money Entergy spreads around to politicians with reputation for flexibility in these matters. Already this year, Entergy’s New York Political Action Committee-ENPAC New York-has doled out more than $25,000 to New York politicians alone. Everyone got into the act from Pataki and Clinton to Democratic congressman Eliot Engel to lowlier footsoldiers for the nuclear plant, including two state assemblymen, commissioners from Westchester and Orange counties, Bronx Borough president Adolfo Carrion and state comptroller Alan Hevesi, whose election campaign was endorsed by the Sierra Club.
Political money isn’t the only tool in Entergy’s bag of tricks. In late October, community activists in the Bronx reported that emissaries from Entergy were canvassing black and Hispanic neighborhoods in New York City and Westchester County with an ominous warning: if Indian Point closes, air quality in urban areas will deteriorate and more blacks and Hispanics will develop respiratory illnesses. The Entergy reps told people that new coal-fired power plants would be built in their neighborhoods and urged them to sign a petition.
"In recent years, nearly all proposals for new power plants in New York state have been in or adjacent to areas with high concentrations of people of African descent and Latinos," a memo handed out at the door warns. There is, naturally, much truth to this claim. and Entergy is in a unique position to know. since throughout the southeast it has targeted its power plants in black neighborhoods, where it has heralded them as bringing economic engines for impoverished communities.
The canvassers also carried cellphones as they went from door to door. They hit the speed dial number of a local legislator, handed the phone to the resident and then prompted them on how to express their concerns about the possible closure of Indian Point.
The petition drive, which discreetly by-passed the 13 predominately white districts in Westchester County, was run by a group calling itself by the lofty-sounding name: the Campaign for Affordable Energy, Environmental & Economic Justice. The group was supposedly based in Manhattan. In fact, it was created and wholly funded by Entergy.
"This is a sham front group fabricated by the nuclear industry to scare black and low income people," says Susan Tolchin, a staffer for Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano, who supports closing the Indian Point plant. "It’s an outrageous and disgusting attempt to exploit the minority community for corporate greed."
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.