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Indian Point Hearings: It’s Down the Rabbit Hole

Entergy Watches as Boron Degrades

by JOHN RAYMOND

Will New York State have any more success in shutting down Entergy’s Indian Point nuclear waste dump on the Hudson River than Vermont has had, so far, in its battle to close Entergy’s Yankee plant that befouls the landmark Connecticut River?

Don’t bet on it. But stay tuned.

Recall that Yankee was relicensed last year without a hitch despite: a long and continuing history of radioactive leaks, shutdowns, and slipshod maintenance that caused, most stunningly, the collapse of a cooling tower in 2007; a perjury investigation by the state Attorney General triggered after Entergy officers lied to state authorities that Yankee had no underground pipes that carried radioactive water (it does), and, last but hardly least, the Vermont Senate’s celebrated vote in 2010 to shut the plant down. The five commissioners on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would hear none of it. Their unanimous vote to extend the 40-year-old plant’s license for another 20 years came less than two weeks after the nuclear catastrophe in Japan raised new fears in the U.S. where 23 reactors, including Yankee, operate with same flawed GE design (identified and covered up by federal nuclear regulators beginning in the early 1970s) that failed in the triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant and released over four times the amount of cesium-137 than was released in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Vermont’s court battle to shut down and decommission Yankee won’t be resolved for years. Throughout, the decrepit, corroding, leaking plant will continue to poison the air and contaminate groundwater and the Connecticut river where fish now test positive for strontium-90.

In New York hearings begin later this month on the legal motions – contentions —  filed against relicensing Indian Point by New York State, and two environmental groups, Riverkeeper (Ossining, NY) and Hudson Sloop Clearwater (Beacon, NY).

But already it’s down the rabbit hole once more with the NRC.

Under the rules of the agency’s game, the issues of most urgent concern to the public have been deemed “out of scope” for the hearings, or are shielded from proceedings because they ‘re under study by the NRC.

“Evacuation planning, security issues, the earthquake issues which we learned a lot about since Fukushima and the earthquake in Virginia last year – those are not allowed to be part of this process,” says Phillip Musegaas, a lawyer with Riverkeeper. “Of course, we strongly disagree and we think that renders much of this process not irrelevant, but it does limit it.”

Indeed. In 2008 seismologists reported that Indian Point sits on a previously unidentified intersection of two active seismic zones. An NRC study ranks Indian Point as the plant most at risk from an earthquake disaster.  Located 25 miles north of New York City limits, it also has the greatest population density of people living in the 50-mile designated pathway ingestion zone (20 million) and the 10-mile emergency planning zone (over 300,000).

Independent studies document irrefutably the impossibility of a workable evacuation from either zone following a serious accident at Indian Point. But the NRC refuses to hear licensing challenges that raise the issue of evacuation by citing its regulatory “finding” of “reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the event of a radiological emergency.”

Safety issues raised by the reckless storage of irradiated fuel in Indian Point’s leaking and dangerously overpacked fuel pools won’t be heard either. Not in this round of hearings — but stay tuned. The NRC has suspended all final licensing decisions in the wake of a U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C. Circuit) ruling in June that struck down the waste storage rules under which the NRC licensed nuclear plants without conducting environmental impact studies that meet the requirements of the National Environmental Impact Act. In September the NRC announced it had set a 2-year deadline to develop an environmental impact statement and publish new waste storage rules.

The vacated rules blocked citizens from raising safety issues related to stored waste in licensing proceedings. Clearwater filed a such a challenge in 2009 that was rejected by the NRC in 2010. Citing the recent court ruling, Clearwater filed a new contention (updated) in July, but the NRC has held it in abeyance (and the flood of others that were filed by interveners in licensing proceedings) “pending further order.”

“It is essential to focus on the dangers our contention points out,” says Clearwater’s environmental director, Manna Jo Greene.

“Originally we were concerned about the impacts of Indian Point on the river and the leaks from the plant were a huge concern,” Greene said. “They still are. But we are more concerned about the danger that these overcrowded fuel pools present – the experts are saying that criticality could even occur spontaneously without leaks.”

Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry executive turned whistleblower who has provided expert testimony in numerous NRC proceedings on behalf of environmental groups, found that a review of the NRC’s Indian Point docket “confirms the record shows that boroflex neutron absorbers have indeed experienced degradation problems” and that the NRC’s safety report for Entergy’s license renewal was “inadequate in its assessment of criticality issues.” Boroflex absorbers are wrappers around fuel racks in spent fuel pools to prevent a nuclear reaction from occurring in the pool. A nuclear reaction raises the threat of a possible fire and massive releases of radioactivity.

In testimony to the NRC, Gundersen states that a “conservative criticality analysis does not appear to have been completed for the Indian Point Units 2 and 3 Fuel Racks – a problem compounded by continuing degradation of boron absorbers” in the racks.

He warns that “the evidence shows that the spent fuel pool aging management programs for the period of extended operation are inadequate to assure inadvertent criticality.” 

In testimony to support a joint contention filed by Riverkeeper and Clearwater, Gundersen found “numerous deficiencies” in the assessments by the NRC and Entergy of the impact of ongoing leaks from the fuel pools, and other system structures and components.”

“At the time of my review, I have been unable to find any other operating U.S. nuclear power plant that is leaking such extensive amounts of tritium andstrontium contamination into any major body of water like the Hudson River,” he states.

New York State has rejected Entergy’s application for a Clean Water Act Water Quality Certification required for its license renewal. Entergy is appealing that decision.

“The presence of the Indian Point nuclear plant in our midst is untenable,” New York State stated in filing its motion against relicensing Indian Point. The motion recounts the plant’s long history of safety incidents “attributable to human error or equipment failure” and points to “gaping holes” in the NRC’s certification of Entergy’s application. It targets Entergy’s required aging management plan that fails to show that it will provide the needed inspections, maintenance and a leak prevention program through the period of a 20-year license extension.

“The issues that are most critical to the public are not going to be heard in this hearing,” Musegaas said. “It is limited to very technical and maintenance issues and the condition of the plant – but all of these issues are very important.”

The initial round of hearings begins Oct. 15 and are open to the public. They will be held at the Doubletree Hotel in Tarrytown, NY. Additional hearings will be held in December and are expected into next year.

John Raymond is a freelance writer in New York City.