Holtec Seeking Exemptions at Indian Point

Indian Point

Holtec would like to discharge water from the former Indian Point nuclear plant into the Hudson River. (File photo by B. Cronin)

Decommissioning firm: ‘We’re taking all the risk’

Tempers flared and technology failed at the most recent meeting of the task force overseeing the decommissioning of the Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River south of Philipstown, which closed in April 2021.

The meeting, which took place on May 19 at Cortlandt Town Hall and lasted more than three hours, was beleaguered by connection problems for those watching online. This led to confusion when, after one lengthy blackout, the feed returned to reveal members of the Indian Point Decommissioning Oversight Board and a representative from Holtec, the Florida firm hired to close the plant, yelling at each other.

The 26-member board includes Sandy Galef, whose district in the state Assembly includes Philipstown; retired nuclear engineer David Lochbaum; Richard Webster, the legal director for the environmental group Riverkeeper; representatives from state agencies; local and Westchester County officials; and labor union leaders.

At the heart of the disagreement is a series of exemptions that Holtec is requesting from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for its emergency plan, off-site liability and property insurance requirements, and how long it can keep spent nuclear fuel exposed to the air instead of submerged in a cooling pool. 

The NRC says spent fuel cannot be exposed for more than 10 hours because of the possibility that the zirconium cladding will overheat. Overheated cladding at the Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union and the Fukushima plant in Japan produced steam that, when mixed with the zirconium, created hydrogen that led to explosions. 

Rich Burroni, a Holtec executive who represented the company at the meeting, said the exemption requests were not unusual and no cause for alarm. 

“We’re not doing anything different from what any other nuclear plant in this country is doing,” he asserted. But his presentation caused unease among members of the task force, especially in light of an investigative report by The Washington Post, published a few days before the meeting, that detailed accidents at other plants that Holtec is decommissioning and a lack of oversight by the NRC. 

Many of the incidents and difficulties detailed by the Post were already known to members of the task force — the incidents prompted the creation of the oversight board on the last day of 2020. The task force was one of the many contingencies New York State demanded from the NRC during the process that transferred the ownership of Indian Point from Entergy to Holtec in May 2021.

Local lawmakers, community leaders and environmental groups opposed the sale, citing what they said was Holtec’s relative inexperience in decommissioning plants, past legal issues and questions about its financial viability. When the NRC neglected to hold a public hearing before approving the transfer, the state attorney general sued to stop it.

A settlement was reached between the state, Entergy, Holtec, local municipalities and Riverkeeper that requires Holtec to maintain a balance of $2.1 billion in a decommissioning fund, help fund local and state emergency management and response, and allow the state Department of Environmental Conservation to have an on-site monitor. The agreement also called for the formation of the Decommissioning Oversight Board.

Webster of Riverkeeper said he believes that sort of diligence has prevented similar problems at Indian Point. “The NRC is not doing a very good job regulating nuclear plants,” he said. “But we have a much better supervision approach because we have New York State supervising, as well as the NRC.”

During the meeting, Webster took issue with Burroni’s insistence that if Holtec does not receive the exemptions, it will not be able to complete the decommissioning on time and within budget. 

“We’re following a process that the NRC gives us to file these exemptions,” said Burroni. “The state has all the right in the world to comment on those and push back. And I’m sure they will. But at the end of the day, it’s the NRC that will grant the exemption or not.”

Webster accused Holtec of trying to unnecessarily speed up the process — expected to take 15 years — at the expense of safety so it can increase profits. “You can either meet the NRC regulations for defueled reactors and emergency planning, or you can file an exemption request, right?” he asked. “So why have you decided to file these exemption requests? As far as I can tell, it’s because you want to save money.” 

“Absolutely,” replied Burroni. “We’re taking all the risk. I don’t see anybody else here taking on the risk.”

The reply did not sit well with task force members and some audience members.

“Don’t go to the lowest common denominator,” said Webster. “Be the best in the country.”

Courtney Williams, a molecular biologist who gave a presentation to the board later in the meeting about the nearby Algonquin pipeline system and Indian Point’s emergency plans, objected to Burroni’s contention that Holtec is taking all the risk. 

“If the s-h-i-t hits the fan, it is most definitely the taxpayers that are going to be holding the bag,” she said. “With our health, with our safety and with our pocketbooks, we are assuming that risk.”

Lochbaum, the retired nuclear engineer on the panel, said that Holtec’s reasons for seeking the exemptions stem from outdated NRC rules. 

“In August 1999, the NRC staff identified 34 sections of the regulations that did not apply to permanently shut down reactors,” he said. “It wasn’t until 2015 that it started a rulemaking process to correct all those known problems. Then the NRC suspended that effort after collecting comments from the industry and the public and the states and so on, and they’re still not done with it. 

“As a result, Holtec and other owners are being forced to seek exemptions to rules that the NRC knows don’t apply during decommissioning,” he said. “It’s an awkward process for everybody. But the bad guy in town is the NRC, who simply doesn’t do their job.”

The next meeting of the task force is scheduled for July 27 and will allow questions from the public. See on.ny.gov/38H1Kvq.

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