On a recent day at the Indian Point nuclear power station, a truck-sized transformer, destroyed by fire, sat discarded on the edge of the property. Nearby, a young scientist headed for the Hudson River with dye-detection equipment to search for the source of a leak of radioactive isotopes. And in another part of the facility, separate computers were devoted to two problem-plagued emergency siren systems.
Located 35 miles north of New York City, Indian Point is the nation's most scrutinized and least popular nuclear installation. Opponents wish that it would just go away.
But the owner of the facility has a much different plan. Entergy Nuclear applied last month for new licenses that would keep one reactor running until 2033 and the other until 2035.
The 2,500-page application, and what could be a two-year relicensing process, has become the focus of Indian Point's many critics. It seems likely to spur the sharpest debate about the reactors since 2003, when a bid to shut down the reactors failed.
"When Entergy declared the intention to extend for 20 years, the idea sort of came together that at least we can assure our children and our children's children that these plants aren't going to continue to operate beyond 2013 and 2015," when the current licenses expire, said Lisa Rainwater, spokeswoman for the environmental organization Riverkeeper.
She said she expects the relicensing battle to become "one of the largest legal cases we have seen in a very long time."
Entergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have stressed that none of the problems are significant safety dangers, and Entergy said in its application that "we are extremely proud of these two great facilities."
But the application prompted a bipartisan group in Congress to express concern, saying, "As a result of its proximity to New York City, there is no doubt that a safety failure at the plant could have catastrophic consequences for the entire nation."
Denial not likely an option
Expecting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny a license — it would be a first — may be far-fetched, however. At a recent Senate hearing, NRC commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr. said that "the people of New York should thank God every day" that Entergy is running Indian Point.
And when the commission's regional administrator, Samuel Collins, was asked if Indian Point's performance problems could result in a denial of the license, he said, "I think the direct answer to that is no."
Indian Point, at about 2,000 megawatts, produces a quarter of the electricity used in New York City and adjoining Westchester County. Arthur Kremer of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance said relicensing is necessary because of several reasons: Electricity demand is soaring, few new plants are being built, and non-emitting facilities are needed to improve the air quality.
But criticism has been building as the plants' problems persist. As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton recently told the NRC, "Just about every week we pick up the local newspaper and find some other problem at Indian Point."
Over the past two years, those problems have included:
- Leaks of radioactive tritium and strontium-90, possibly from the pools that protect spent nuclear fuel, into the groundwater beneath Indian Point and then, in tiny concentrations, into the Hudson. The source is still being sought.
- Several failures of the siren system that's designed to alert people within 10 miles of the Buchanan plants to any emergency. In July 2005, the sirens stood useless for nearly six hours when power was lost and no one noticed. In March 2006, the system locked up for several hours during a test.
- A missed deadline for the installation of a new siren system. Entergy Nuclear, a subsidiary of New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., was fined $130,000 by the NRC, which said the failure "reflects insufficient management attention at senior levels."
- Nine unplanned shutdowns of the reactors since 2005, including two last month, the latest due to the fire in the transformer.
- A finding by the NRC that some Indian Point workers were reluctant to raise safety concerns because they fear retribution.
"These problems have eroded the confidence of many New Yorkers in the plant, its operators and the NRC's oversight," Clinton said. "Indian Point faces a very critical time with their upcoming relicensing and the NRC and Entergy need to prove to the community that their facility is safe and will remain so into the future."
Neighbors include Clintons
Clinton, who lives 15 miles from the plants, has been among the leading critics of Entergy and the commission. It was her legislation that imposed the new siren system, and she is sponsoring a bill that would make relicensing conditional on what is known as an Independent Safety Assessment. The ISA is a rare, expensive and time-consuming inspection conducted in part by engineers with no connection to the NRC or Indian Point.
The NRC acknowledges that Indian Point has more than its share of problems. NRC Chairman Dale Klein said the plants seem "snakebit." But the commission maintains its current oversight process is superior to the Independent Safety Assessment.
Collins said the NRC understands that Indian Point is important because it is located in such a heavily populated area. He said the commission has responded by having four resident inspectors — double the standard number — on the site and by increasing its scrutiny in response to plant problems.
Nevertheless, Clinton's legislation, and a similar bill in the House, have drawn support from Sen. Charles Schumer, Gov. Eliot Spitzer and almost all the area's Congressional delegation. The House bill is sponsored by freshman Rep. John Hall, the former rock 'n' roll star who is opposed to nuclear power anywhere and now represents the district that includes Indian Point.
Citing the dangers of nuclear waste and the difficulty of evacuation, Hall said last week that he would like to see the plants closed immediately and converted into a renewable energy research and development center. But he said he understands that "the most likely process economically and politically is that it runs out the end of its original license."
He said he recently told an NRC commissioner who was proclaiming his objectivity, "One way you could burnish your reputation as a regulator is by once, somewhere in the country, refusing an application for a license."