Firm wants exceptions for Indian Point work
New York State has formally objected to a series of exemptions that Holtec International, the company decommissioning the Indian Point nuclear power plant near Peekskill, is seeking from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The exemptions concern aspects of the plant’s emergency preparedness requirements, including staffing levels, evacuation plans and how interactions with first responders would be handled in the case of an emergency.
Holtec insists that because the decommissioned plant is much less of a risk, in terms of accidents and as a terrorist target, the NRC’s requirements are too stringent. “Off-site emergency plans are not necessary for permanently defueled nuclear power plants,” it states in its request, explaining that Holtec staff can handle any situations that would be most likely to occur.
Holtec said its exemption requests are similar to those requested at other facilities being decommissioned, especially given that the NRC has not updated regulations to take into account the ways in which a decommissioned plant is different from an active one.
“We’re not doing anything different from what any other nuclear plant in this country is doing,” said Rich Burroni, a Holtec executive, during a meeting last year of the Indian Point Decommissioning Oversight Board.
New York State is requesting that the NRC not allow the exemptions because of recent mishaps at a nuclear plant that Holtec is decommissioning in New Jersey. The “high number of recent safety violations” at Oyster Creek “raise questions about whether this facility and this owner in particular warrant this exemption,” said the state’s appeal. “While similar exemptions have been granted at other facilities, it is not clear that this workforce is as experienced as that of other nationwide facilities not operating under this contract-worker.”
The state also noted the characteristics of Indian Point that make it a particular risk. (See below.)
What’s Special About Indian Point?
While many nuclear plants in the U.S. have been the targets of criticism and concern, the risk of a radioactive release from Indian Point is heightened in several ways:
While most nuclear plants are located in rural areas with few people, Indian Point is 24 miles from the largest city in the country. About 17 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the plant. “NRC should not overlook the common-sense point that a credible accident affecting a hyper-urbanized area with 2,000 people per square mile plainly will have greater public health and other consequences than a comparable accident affecting a rural area with only 300 or 800 people per square mile,” the state wrote in its objection.
Indian Point’s spent fuel pools are 6 miles west of the New Croton Reservoir, which is part of the system that provides drinking water to New York City. The plant also sits on the Hudson River, which provides drinking water to seven communities (not including Beacon, Cold Spring or Garrison).
Indian Point sits in a relatively low point of the Hudson Valley, with the mountains of the Highlands to the north and the cliffs of the Palisades to the south. Studies conducted by a former plant owner found that the mountains and cliffs funnel wind up and downriver, which could mean that radiation released from Indian Point would be directed toward New York City or West Point, Philipstown, Newburgh and Beacon.
According to the NRC, the U.S. nuclear plant most at-risk of being damaged by an earthquake isn’t in California or the Pacific Northwest: It’s Indian Point, which was built near the intersection of two active seismic zones, containing small, intertwined fault lines. “We need to step backward from the simple old model, where you worry about one large, obvious fault, like they do in California,” wrote a scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in 2008. The probability of a major quake “is not zero, and the damage could be great,” he said. “It could be like something out of a Greek myth.”
While the threat of an earthquake was known when the plant was built in the early 1960s, subsequent research such as the 2008 report found it to be much higher than what the plant and its spent fuel facilities were built to withstand. Scientists found evidence of a fault line that runs at least 25 miles from Stamford, Connecticut, to Peekskill, passing less than a mile north of Indian Point, that might be able to produce a magnitude 6 quake or greater.
If the NRC allows the exemptions, the state asked that they be delayed until Holtec has finished emptying the pools of spent nuclear fuel, a process that is scheduled to be completed by November. “Investing in emergency preparedness for the final 10 months until all spent fuel is in dry cask storage is well worth the modest expense,” the state said.
In a separate letter, Tom Congdon of the Indian Point Decommissioning Oversight Board asked the NRC to hold a public forum before making a decision. “I know the voices and opinions of the community will serve as valuable inputs into NRC’s deliberations,” he wrote.
A representative for the NRC says there is no timetable for a decision on Holtec’s request. The next meeting of the Indian Point Decommissioning Oversight Board is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday (Feb. 2) at Cortlandt Town Hall.
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