Geriatric Nuclear Reactors Could Kill Us All
In America, you need a license to drive an automobile, to operate heavy machinery, to hunt and fish, but apparently not to run a nuclear reactor. Entergy Corp. is slated to become the first company in history to operate a reactor without a license this fall. The Louisiana-based energy corporation’s rogue reactor is located at its Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, NY—just 24 miles from Manhattan. Entergy Corp's license to run its Indian Point 2 reactor expires on September 28. The regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is charged with overseeing the civilian use of nuclear power, says it is prepared to grant the license but its hands are tied by legal challenges mounted by New York State and a federal court ruling last year. The ruling dismissed the agency's radioactive waste management plans as inadequate.
Most of America's nuclear plants were built in the 60s and 70s. They were given shelf lives of 40 years. It was assumed by the industry at the time of their construction that when the millennium rolled around there would be new plants up, running, and ready to replace the old fleet. But between then and now interest in nuclear power has waned due to cost and the public’s reaction to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and other nuclear calamities. Instead, the energy industry has sought to renew the licenses on the reactors they already operate, while keeping the cost of infrastructure improvements to a bare minimum. They've encountered little resistance from the NRC, which has approved 73 separate license renewals and only denied one single application in its history.
Meanwhile, the waste has piled up. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry policy group, estimates that US's 104 commercial reactors have generated 69,720 metric tons of radioactive waste (spent-fuel) over the past four decades, with each plant chipping in approximately 2,000 to 2,300 metric tons each year. Nobody knows what to do with it all. Plant operators are, in a sense, shitting where they eat at the moment by storing nuclear waste onsite at the plants where it is generated.
The Energy Department put $12 billion towards a plan to pack the radioactive material into Yucca Mountain, a hollowed out volcano a hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. But the Obama Administration scrapped the initiative, mired in 20 years worth of construction difficulties and environmental opposition, in 2010.
Last June, a federal appeals court ruled that—as the Energy Department hunts for a new Yucca Mt. and a community willing to live beside nearly 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste—the NRC must come up with a longterm plan that addresses waste storage. Until then, the agency can't renew reactor licenses. Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for the NRC said it won't be until 2015 that the NRC draws up a plan and it is approved by courts.
In the meantime, the NRC plans to allow Entergy to continue to operate Indian Point 2 reactor under the “timely renewal” doctrine, since the company applied for a new license more than five years prior to the expiration of the one it currently possess. The maneuver, effectively skirting the appeals court ruling, could also be applied to the other operational reactor at the plant, reactor 3, when its license expires in 2015.
“Under timely renewal, your current license remains in place,” said Screnci. “In this case, Entergy will abide by any commitments it would make under a new license.” Screnci said the NRC also regulates nuclear materials used for medical purposes and academic research. In those arenas, the timely renewal doctrine has been applied in the past. However, she conceded that this is the first time it has been applied to a reactor.
March against Indian Point in New York City and nuclear power in general on March 11, 2012, the anniversary of Fukushima.
Entergy spokesperson Jim Steets also downplayed the significance of the company driving the reactor without a license. He said the company, whose yearly revenues are approximately $11 billion, has invested over a billion dollars in Indian Point since it purchased the plant from Consolidated Edison in 2001 and has put “vast amounts” of the sum toward safety.
Critics of Entergy tell a different story. They have long pushed for Indian Point's closure, countering the company's slogan "Safe. Secure. Vital." with their own "Old. Dangerous. Unnecessary." They contend it is reckless to operate a nuclear plant in close proximity to America's largest metropolitan area and say chances are scant of evacuating the 20 million people who live within a 50 mile radius of the facility should a meltdown occur. (Fifty miles was the NRC's recommended evacuation zone during the meltdowns at Fukushima in Japan.)
“Nuclear power generation is an inherently unstable process,” said Pace University physics professor Chris Williams. “What you are trying to do is control instability because the moment things get out of control, as we saw recently at Fukushima, all hell breaks loose. So you set up a system that has to be kept cool at all times once the nuclear reactions have started, otherwise you can't contain the heat and there are explosions, radiation leaks, and meltdowns.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman together with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation have petitioned the NRC to scrutinize the environmental hazards associated with Indian Point, including the seepage of strontium-90, tritium, and other cancerous radioactive substances into groundwater reservoirs and the Hudson River. The NRC must demonstrate it has addressed the state's contentions or further legal challenges will ensue before it can grant Indian Point a renewed license.
Critics also charge that the NRC is far too lax when it comes to safety at the plant, pointing out the agency has granted Entergy numerous fire safety exemptions over the years.
In 2007, for example, fire insolation around cables controlling Indian Point's two reactors were found to be deficient, only capable of withstanding flames for 26 minutes. Instead of requiring that Entergy meet their regulations requiring cables be capable of withstanding a blaze for up to an hour, which would allow fire crews time to arrive, nullify flames, and prevent a potential meltdown, the NRC granted an exemption. They lowered the required flame retardant time at Indian Point to 24 minutes so that Entergy was in compliance.
“The regulators are basically being regulated by the corporations that they're supposedly overseeing,” said Williams.
While the company has skimped on infrastructure upgrades at it's aging plant, a report from the campaign finance watchdog Common Cause NY last month found that Entergy has spent approximately $40 million on lobbying and campaign contributions on a state and federal level since 2005 as its reactor licenses at Indian Point neared expiration. The report notes that Entegy has retained the public relations firm Burson Marstella, “self-described experts in 'reputation and crisis management strategies,' who have worked for such highly controversial clients as Union Carbide, Philip Morris, Blackwater, Foxconn, and Babcock & Wilcox (the firm that designed the Three Mile Island nuclear plant).”
“Burson Marstella doesn't speak for us at all,” countered Steets on behalf of Entergy. Yet it was Burson Marstella that devised Entergy's “Safe. Secure. Vital.” slogan.
Entergy has also set up two front groups to advocate on its behalf, according to Common Cause. SHARE (Safe Healthy Affordable Reliable Energy) targets communities of color in New York City by advocating for nuclear power as a way to reduce pollution and lower asthma rates while NY AREA (Affordable Reliable Energy Alliance) targets unions and environmental groups. Steets insisted that while Entergy executives serve on the boards of these organizations, they are independent of the corporation. Yet doppelgangers of these same groups exist elsewhere where Entergy operates reactors. Take Massachusetts, where company runs the Pilgrim nuclear plant near Plymouth. There's a group called MASS AREA, whose publicity material nearly matches those of its New York counterpart.
Along with these astroturf groups, the report observes Entergy donated $1.25 million to local health, fire, and police departments in the area surrounding Indian Point and has given smaller allotments to “youth sports leagues, to performing arts venues, [and] to local parks.” In turn, “Many of these organizations have testified at public hearings on behalf of Entergy’s corporate citizenship in support of granting Indian Point a license extension.”
“They have so much money to spend trying to influence the public and indirectly influence the NRC,” said Susen Learner, Executive Director of Common Cause NY, “Why can't they spend that money improving safety at the plant?”
Steets said the money Entergy has spent on marketing and lobbying is a paltry sum compared to its yearly revenues. Nonetheless he conceded that cost is a factor, as it is for any business, when Entergy determines what infrastructure updates to initiate. He insisted, however, “There are different ways to ensure safety and we have to demonstrate that safety is ultimately ensured to the NRC before they grant us an exemption.” In the case of fire insulation, this includes the heightened monitoring of vulnerable cables by Entergy staff.
This fall, as Entergy continues to feed Indian Point uranium, it won't be the first time company has has managed to keep one of its aging plants operational. In 2010, Vermont's State Senate voted to shutter Entergy's Vermont Yankee plant. While the state's Public Service Board, which answers to the State Senate, has refused Entergy a certificate of public good to operate Vermont Yankee, the NRC has given the corporation the green-light to keep the plant up and running until 2032. The state and the NRC are currently duking the matter out in court.
In New York and Vermont, hopes that civic pressure along with last year's federal court ruling, would thwart Entergy's plans to keep its plants operational have been dashed so far. But at least one set of geriatric reactors were retired recently.
Southern California Edison announced June 7 it will decommission its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) after a tremor in 2011 led to the release of radioactive steam from the plant, about 50 miles north of San Diego. The release, while not enough to warrant an evacuation, occurred just months after tectonic shifts led to nuclear meltdowns in Japan, stoking public fears of an American Fukushima. A subsequent investigation into the radioactive release uncovered hundreds of leaking tubes carrying radioactive water, prompting California Edison to shut the plant down in June 2012. Like San Onofre, Indian Point rests on two fault-lines: the Ramapo, which engineers were aware of during the plant's construction, and the Stamford-Peekskill line, which was discovered by seismologists in 2008.
Despite the dangers of running an aging nuclear plant on two fault-lines beside America's largest population center, the NRC has shown little will towards fulfilling it's public safety mandate. Even if the agency is unable to legally relicense the two Indian Point reactors, Diane Screnci says that under timely renewal there is no time limit on how long the reactors can continue to operate. New Yorkers could be forced to live beside a radioactive Pandora's Box indefinitely or at least until its nuclear lid is lifted.
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