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Activists File Emergency Legal Action to Halt the Reactivation of a Nuclear Reactor in New York

Friends of the Earth filed a petition on Tuesday with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, saying an investigation is need to determine why 1 in 4 cooling system bolts in one of the facility's reactors was degraded or missing.

by Jake Bleiberg
May 24 2016, 5:45pm

Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP

On Tuesday morning, an environmental group filed emergency legal action in an effort to block the restarting of a nuclear reactor at a New York State power plant, where the group alleges that infrastructure failings have not been sufficiently investigated.

In a petition filed with the US Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC), Friends of the Earth called on the regulator to delay the restart of the Unit 2 reactor at the Indian Point nuclear plant — which sits on the Hudson river 26 miles north of New York City — until investigators determine what caused more than a quarter of the bolts that hold together part of the reactor's cooling system to become cracked, degraded, or go missing.

"The regulator's response so far to this safety failure is to allow Entergy [the company that operates Indian Point]... free rein to decide whether and to what extent it should analyze the cause of the failure, and to determine when, in Entergy's opinion, the plant is safe to restart," states the Friends of the Earth petition, which also calls for the power plants other reactor to be shut down for inspection.

Entergy could not be immediately reached for comment.

This April, when fuel was drained from the Unit 2 reactor, the NRC instructed Entergy to check for damage by running ultrasonic waves through the steel bolts that hold together metal plates, which in turn channel cooling water through the nuclear fuel assemblies. Since the 1980s nuclear plant operators and regulators have been aware of a tendency for wear in these bolts, know as baffle bolts.

But what the inspectors found at Indian Point, the NRC said, was unprecedented.

Of the 832 two-inch long bolts that help secure reactor cooling systems, 227 were found to be degraded, which could mean they were cracked or showing early signs of cracking.

"It's not that uncommon for plant operators to find degraded bolts when they do these inspections, but Indian Point had the highest number we've seen to date," said NRC spokesperson Neal Sheehan.

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Further, two bolt heads were found to be missing. The NRC believes the small metal pieces may have fallen into the reactor, where it says it is unlikely but possible that they could cause damage to a nuclear fuel rod.

Following the discovery of the degradation, Entergy said that it intended to replace all the damaged bolts. The NRC confirmed that the 227 bolts, plus an additional 50, have now been replaced, that the company is working to retrieve the bolt caps, and that it will run a risk assessment if they cannot be fished from the reactor.

Entergy has pointed to this as they system of checks working as it's supposed to.

"Safety is always our first priority, and the hundreds of inspections performed over the last few weeks demonstrate these programs work as designed," said Larry Coyle, who heads the Indian Point plant, in a late March statement announcing that the bolts would be replaced.

Friends of the Earth, however, sees the replacement of the bolts as insufficient without more information about why so many were degraded, and suggested that the company may be rushing the process in order to profit from high summer energy prices.

"The race to get this reactor backup is not about fixing it, it's about assuring Entergy profits," said Damon Moglen of Friends of the Earth. "They're really putting profits before public safety here."

Sheehan rejected the idea that the measures in place were insufficient to assure the plant's safety and said the NRC has had three full-time inspectors at Indian Point supervising the examination and replacement of the missing bolts. He also said the agency will review all of Entergy's explanations of how so many bolts were damaged and what happened to the missing bolt heads prior to the reactor being restarted.

"Before the plant comes back online we expect the company to have all of these kinds of answers," said Sheehan. "What concerns us is that they do a very thorough analysis and that independently we can verify that it meets all the requirements."

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Indian Point is an important source of energy for New York City, but has also been plagued with problems both large and small since its opening over 40 years ago. Most recently, in February, the plant leaked radioactive material into nearby groundwater in what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called "alarming levels."

Cuomo has long been pushing to have the plant shut down at the end of its current license, but only federal regulators have power over nuclear power plants.

Although it is reviewed by the NRC, Entergy conducts the testing that determines whether the plant is ready to come back online. And Moglen expressed concern about the NRC's oversight, citing a 2008 comment made by then-White House candidate Barack Obama.

"The NRC is... a moribund agency that needs to be revamped and has become captive of the industries that it regulates," said Obama. "I think that is a problem."

The NRC will have 30 days to rule on Friends of the Earth's petition, which asks the agency to independently "study the cause of the [bolt] failures," and "not permit restart of Unit 2 until it is satisfied that the unit can operate safely."

Sheehan, who was interviewed before Friends of the Earth filed its petition, stressed that the NRC is closely watching what's happening at Indian Point. But could not comment on when the reactor would be up and running.

"We can't get into exactly when the plant may return to service," he said. "All I can tell you is that they are now done with the bolt replacement, they have some other activities they have to do, and we await the analysis."

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg