New York is the first state to formally oppose relicensing of a nuclear power plant
At a time when the rest of the world is experiencing what is called a "nuclear renaissance," the situation in the Empire State appears to be retrograding into a dark age where all things nuclear are considered a threat, and often on an emotional rather than rational basis.The relicensing hearing now being conducted by the NRC seems more like the medieval hunt for the unicorn portrayed in tapestries at the Cloisters in New York than a modern 21st century assessment of nuclear energy technologies.
At a time when many large utilities, such as TVA, do not see any alternative for base load demand, besides nuclear energy, to the problem of greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants, the issue of what would happen if Indian Point were shut down seems to have been set aside. Locking up and shutting down nuclear energy seems to be the more general goal of opponents of the Indian Point nuclear power plant.
State of New York once a defender, is now the hunter
The New York Times reports that at one time the State of New York was a defender of the plant, now owned and operated by Entergy Nuclear. New York, which built the plant, sold it to Entergy for the bargain-basement price of $600 million in 2000. The plants supply 2,000 MWe and, depending on seasonal variations, cover from 20-40% of the region's need for electricity.
Now the state has joined with Westchester County and a coalition of municipalities, environmental, and anti-nuclear groups to petition the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) not to grant a 20-year extension for the two operating reactors. Their licenses expire in 2013 and 2015 respectively.
The Times reports that the charge, once led by the now disgraced Gov. Elliott Spitzer, is being brought forward by Mylan Denerstein, a deputy attorney general for NY state. Her lead off position is that the plants represent targets for terrorists. In an emotional presentation she told the NRC this month, "The continued operation of Indian Point is untenable. The risks are simply too great."
Supporters of the plant point out that the risk of an attack must be weighed against the issues of possible brownouts and the certainty of much higher costs for electricity if replacement power from fossil plants must be bought on the spot market.
The NRC, which will take some time to make up its mind on the relicensing issue, says it is not persuaded by popular political passions. Commissioner Peter Lyons told counterparts in Istanbul,Turkey, last January that his view on regulation is to "maintain stable regulatory standards."
The Times points out the NRC must consider two factors in its decision whether to extend the licenses. The first is whether Entergy has an adequate plan for managing the plants, and the second is the environmental impact of keeping the plants open.
Environmental groups list their issues
The NRC rejected a laundry list of issues raised by Ms. Denerstein which included the threat of terrorism, emergency evacuation, accidental releases of radioactivity, storage of spent nuclear fuel, and the danger of earthquakes. For its part the NRC said these issues are not relevant for the license extension decision and are covered in regulations that govern plant operations.
The lead environmental group in the mix is Riverkeeper which seems to be supplying Ms. Denerstein's talking points based on the text of its website. Nearly three dozen other environmental groups count themselves as allies in the drive to close Indian Point.
The group submitted detailed technical arguments against relicensing including metal fatigue of aging plant components, corrosion in the cooling system, and leaks of strontium-90 and tritium into groundwater.
Phillip Musegaas, an attorney for Riverkeeper, told the NY Times he did not think his group would prevail in the NRC hearings.
"We are fairly pessimistic. When you look at the challenges that have been raised by other plants in the past, the NRC is very resistant." He said the NRC was "captive" to the nuclear industry, a charge the agency's commissioners have rejected.
Entergy responds to its challenges
While the NRC has been working through the regulatory process to see which issues and what parties have standing in the regulatory mix, the utility that owns and operates Indian Point is not leaving anything to chance. This week it announced that the "special circumstances" of the relicensing process merits an independent safety evaluation which Entergy would pay for itself.
Michael Kansler, President and Chief Nuclear Officer of Entergy, told the New York Times, "Repeated and continuous NRC assessments have concluded Indian Point is safe. We hope this evaluation will be another step in building public confidence."
"We are taking the extra step of performing an independent safety evaluation (ISE) to reassure the public that Indian Point is a safe and secure facility with acceptable plans in place to address an emergency."
Kansler said the decision to perform an ISE came after the company listened to various constituencies and policymakers and conducted numerous focus groups in an effort to understand the concerns associated with Indian Point.
Riverkeeper immediately took issue with Entergy. Lisa Rainwater, the group's policy director, told the Times her group had no confidence in the assessment. She said this was a job for the NRC. [Update 03/25/08 NEI's blog has more detail.]
The NRC said it had no objection to Entergy's assessment, but pointed out it was paid to do this work by fees from the nuclear industry as appropriated by Congress. In effect, Entergy is already paying for the NRC's work, and appears to be willing to get a second opinion, even at its own expense. The NRC also noted that independent assessments of nuclear power plants are conducted all the time by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), which is an independent nuclear safety organization.
James Rhodes, chairman of the Entergy panel, is the former chairman and CEO of INPO. He is also the former CEO of Virginia Power which is also a nuclear utility. The panel members will spend three weeks at the plant and more time writing a report. Rhodes told the TImes his group's findings will likely be used by both sides in the licensing dispute. He noted the group must notify the NRC of any problems it finds.
Entergy emphasized two areas would be covered in the assessment.
- Implementation of nuclear safety requirements, conservative decision making, regulatory compliance, and identification and resolution of safety problems.
- Conduct of operations, engineering, maintenance, management, and plant material condition.
The security evaluation would include Indian Point's capability to deal with credible security events, including ones involving terrorist attacks. The emergency preparedness evaluation includes:
- Accident response and accident management capability.
- Interface with and support of offsite emergency management.
Closure could cause cost of electricity to rise by 50%
Closing the Indian Point plant could cause very significant increases in the cost of electricity according to a report prepared for the a coalition of business groups by Energy Strategies of Albany, NY.
The New York Times reported that the consultant's study indicates the plant is cost-effective and that its closing would have a direct impact on the loss of 11,000 jobs in the region because of higher electricity prices. Riverkeeper charged the report's findings were biased because Entergy is a member of the coalition.
Marsha Gordon, CEO of the Westchester Business Alliance, told the NY Times, "Entergy had no role in the development of the report." She added that closing Indian Point would bring the potential for rolling blackouts and disruption of business operations.
The study also said that "conservation measures and the development of renewable energy sources such as windmills will not be sufficient to offset the loss of Indian point."
Indian Point faces operational issues
In the midst of a contentious relicensing hearing, the utility took two hits to its public profile. First, the NRC issued a notice of violation to Entergy over problems with the failed operation of emergency sirens at the plant. If upheld the utility will have to pay a fine of $650,000. Second, two Indian Point plant security guards tested positive for cocaine in their systems and were suspended from work. The NRC said that nationwide incidents of this type are rare.& & &
All-in-all March has not been a good month for Indian Point. The NRC hearings could easily spill over into 2009 and even beyond the current political life of the incumbent NewYork Governor. Until the NRC makes a decision, the plants will keep operating and the lights will stay on.