Experts are claiming that a massive natural gas pipeline being constructed next to a major nuclear power plant in New York could cause a meltdown just 40 miles north of Manhattan.
The company Spectra Energy has started construction on a 42-inch-diameter pipeline that will pass only 105 feet from the 1970s-era Indian Point nuclear facility on the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York. The $1 billion pipeline would carry natural gas obtained via fracking from Appalachia to New England.
If this pipe ever exploded, it could damage two diesel fuel tanks and a switching station that provide power for the nuclear plant, said Paul Blanch, a retired engineer with decades of experience in nuclear safety who opposes the pipeline. Without power, engineers might not be able to shut down the Indian Point reactors to avert a major disaster.
"We would have a total loss of power and would wind up with exactly what happened at Fukushima," Blanch told VICE News. "Fukushima didn't melt down because of the tsunami. They melted down because they didn't have power."
The chances that the pipeline will explode were minimal, Blanch admitted. But the fall-out could be so catastrophic that Spectra and government regulators needed to plan for the unexpected, he said, and it was unacceptable that the public were not able to view the company's safety research.
A National Transportation Safety Board study published in January found that three large pipelines exploded in the United States in the previous five years. The worst was a 30-inch natural gas pipeline that ruptured in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno in 2010, engulfing a neighborhood in flames and killing eight.
A recent fire at Indian Point following the explosion of a transformer — the third transformer failure in eight years — has heightened concerns that safety measures and inspections are inadequate.
Officials said Indian Point could withstand an explosion. Spectra is going to install a concrete barrier around the underground pipeline as well as other measures to mitigate damage, Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, told VICE News.
"Walkdowns of the site demonstrated that if the diesel generator fuel oil storage tank located near the switchyard is ruptured, oil would flow away from the site and would not cross Broadway," said Sheehan wrote, referring to the road that runs past Indian Point. "Therefore, there is no concern about oil from this tank flowing towards the site."
Spectra directed VICE News to an informational webpage stating the company has rights of way for other pipelines that already run along the same route. Securing other rights farther from the nuclear plant could take years, said Blanch.
Activists note that Entergy, which owns Indian Point so is far from an independent expert, conducted the research for the commission's review of Spectra's safety measures. The research is not available to the public, fueling their suspicions that businessmen and bureaucrats are ignoring their concerns.
But Sheehan said Entergy's information was not public because it could help terrorists or vandals cause havoc. "Because it could impact the security of the plant, we're not going to produce those kinds of details," he said.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Earth Institute and professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, said a thorough, objective, review must be carried out. "Of particular concern is the proximity of the project to a significant seismic zone and the Indian Point nuclear plant," he told news website EcoWatch. "This combination of factors presents a real risk of major disaster with profound, long-term impact on the region."
In March, after consulting with the NRC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which permits pipelines, gave Spectra the green light to build.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was due to hold a Wednesday night meeting in Tarrytown to discuss the transformer fire and other safety issues at Indian Point. The pipeline officially wasn't on the meeting's agenda, but activists like Ellen Weininger, a White Plains resident who co-founded Stop the Algonquin Pipeline Extension, or SAPE, planned to bring it up anyway.
"Picture a pipeline rupturing," Weininger told VICE News. "It explodes, and it can trigger a series of explosions. It's several hundred feet away from spent radioactive fuel."
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