Buchanan, NY — Intensely controversial Indian Point nuclear power plant will completely cease operations by 2021, but the move to shutter operations on the facility — located just 25 miles north of New York City — has itself stirred contention.
Legal and environmental battles have raged for years over Indian Point, which supplies nearly one-third of the energy generation for the metropolis and has — in recent times, at least, officially — one of the best track records of any nuclear plant in the U.S.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has for years fought to shut down Indian Point — which he has called a “ticking time bomb” — both for its proximity to a sprawling urban populace and for the plant’s disputable safety record. Announcing the coming closure, Cuomo stated this week,
For 15 years, I have been deeply concerned by the continuing safety violations at Indian Point, especially given its location in the largest and most densely populated metropolitan region in the country. I am proud to have secured this agreement with Entergy to responsibly close the facility 14 years ahead of schedule to protect the safety of all New Yorkers. This administration has been aggressively pursuing and incentivizing the development of clean, reliable energy, and the state is fully prepared to replace the power generated by the plant at a negligible cost to ratepayers.
Wind power will be the governor’s primary focus, but that sufficient clean energy infrastructure to replace the two gigawatts of power produced at Indian Point isn’t yet in place has brought the eminent shuttering of the nuclear facility into question by both the industry and, surprisingly, even some environmental advocates.
Entergy, which operates Indian Point, will now be able to renew expired licenses to keep the plant functioning until the two remaining reactors — the original Unit 1 ceased operation in 1974 — go offline for good. Indian Point Unit 2 is slated to shut down as early as April 2020 and Unit 3, April 2021 — but Entergy plans to seek license renewals through 2024 and 2025, respectively, in case the electrical grid operator feels the system can’t handle the loss that soon.
In a press release concerning its agreement to shutter the facility, Entergy stated:
The two operating units at the Indian Point Energy Center will close in 2020-2021 after powering New York for more than four decades with clean, safe, and reliable electricity. The early and orderly shutdown is part of a settlement under which New York State has agreed to drop legal challenges and support renewal of the operating licenses for Indian Point, located in the Village of Buchanan in northern Westchester County. The shutdown will complete Entergy’s exit from its merchant power business because of sustained low wholesale energy prices.
Indian Point, despite claims the plant has one of the best operating records in the U.S., has had its share of mishaps and close calls — rattling the nerves of residents nearby and in the New York metroplex.
In early February 2016, a spike in radioactivity in three monitoring wells — one measuring 65,000 percent above normal — induced a small panic, as Cuomo released a statement asserting, “radioactive tritium-contaminated water leaked into groundwater.” Then, the following month, Unit 3 shut down because of excessive bird poop — seriously. In 2015, the plant stopped operations after a balloon became entangled in electrical wires. Though both shutdowns occurred precisely as designed, for area residents, in particular, they evince the tenuous nature of nuclear power.
But the spike in radioactivity in the wells and the seemingly humorous nature of those shutdowns add to, as Anti-Media reported,
a list of many issues over the years — in 1979, alone, there were 14 ‘incidents’ at Indian Point 2, and nine at Indian Point 3. But even cursory research reveals numerous leaks at the plant, including a ‘serious’ 100,000 gallon leak in 1980, an 8,000 gallon leak in 1981, and a leak of an unspecified amount in 1995. Tritium-and nickel-63-tainted water leached into the groundwater supply in 2006. In 1982, Indian Point was the target of the first hearing in history by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to determine whether a nuclear plant should simply be closed down due to its safety record.
On the banks of the Hudson River in Buchanan, Indian Point Unit 1 was the first nuclear plant designated for civilian use upon construction in 1962 — but that location, itself, has stoked fears in the past few years. While not as storied as the notorious San Andreas fault in California, the long-dormant Ramapo Fault Zone — comprising the region where the plant is located — has begun to stir once again, earning the attention of geologists and scientists concerned for New York City and the proximity of Indian Point.
“A study by a group of prominent seismologists suggests that a pattern of active but subtle faults makes the risk of earthquakes to the New York City area substantially greater than formerly believed,” Columbia University’s Earth Institute found in 2008. “Among other things, they say the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plants, 24 miles north of the city, sit astride the previously unidentified intersection of two active seismic zones.”
Then in 2011, the NRC studied and rated the nation’s nuclear plants on the potential for core damage in relation to seismic risk — Indian Point Unit 3 landed conspicuously at the top, its risk having risen 72 percent over previous evaluations.
“The chance of an earthquake causing core damage at Indian Point 3 is estimated at 1 in 10,000 each year,” investigative reporter Bill Dedman explained. “Under NRC guidelines, that’s right on the verge of requiring ‘immediate concern requiring adequate protection’ of the public … The odds take into consideration two main factors: the chance for serious quake, and the strength of design of the plant.”
Victor Gilinsky — an energy consultant and former member of the NRC — penned an op-ed for the New York Times in December 2011, with the telling title, “Indian Point: The Next Fukushima?” which stated,
A severe accident at Indian Point, whose two reactors [that remain in operation] opened in 1974 and 1976, is a remote but real possibility. We’ve had two severe accidents with large releases of radioactivity in the past. The Chernobyl accident was dismissed by Western countries on the grounds that it was the product of Soviet sloppiness and ‘couldn’t happen here.’ But the Fukushima accident involved reactors built to American designs.
“The essential characteristic of this technology is that the reactor’s uranium fuel — about 100 tons in a typical plant — melts quickly without cooling water. The containment structures surrounding the reactors — even the formidable-looking domes at Indian Point — were not designed to hold melted fuel because safety regulators 40 years ago considered a meltdown impossible.
“They were wrong, and now we know that radioactive material in the melted fuel can escape and contaminate a very large area for decades or more. It doesn’t make sense to allow such a threat to persist a half-hour’s drive from our nation’s largest city.”
Now, fortunately for millions in what would be the fallout zone if catastrophe struck, Indian Point nuclear plant has a shut down date in sight.
However, closing a nuclear facility is anything but instantaneous — decommissioning can take years, and involves the delicate task of dismantling reactors’ cores, removing spent fuel, storage, and then transporting to a designated safe containment cask. Material from the unit shuttered in 1974 remains on the premises to this day.
Entergy stated it would assist the nearly 1,000 full-time Indian Point workers in finding gainful employment. Around 190 will stay after the final shutdown to assist in the decommissioning process.