I just received the high school information packet for my son’s fall semester. In it is a detailed Indian Point Radiological Emergency Evacuation Plan. Planning for worst case scenarios has become a fact of life in the five years since 9/11, but these next few months will be crucial in determining our quality of life for the future. In January 2007, Entergy, owner of the Indian Point nuclear power plants, will likely petition the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to renew its operating license for Indian Point for another twenty years. Can we and our children live with two more decades of environmental damage caused by Indian Point and the fear of a potential catastrophe there?
Given the high cost of oil and the ominous consequences of global warming, some people may now be questioning the wisdom of trying to shut down Indian Point. After all, isn’t nuclear energy supposed to be cheap and clean? It certainly appears that way when nuclear-produced electricity is touted to be 2 cents per KWh. But this price doesn’t reflect the actual costs of building a nuclear power plant, disposing of its radioactive waste, or dismantling a plant when its life is over. And part of what makes nuclear energy appear cheap is that the U.S. government (i.e., we, the taxpayers) has spent 10 times more on subsidies to the nuclear industry than it has on renewable energy sources. So given all this and the radioactivity lasting hundreds of thousands of years that nuclear power plants leave behind, are we and our children really getting a good deal?
Times have changed since the two reactors at Indian Point went online in Buchanan in 1973 and 1976. In 1973, the population of Westchester County was 886,600; today it is 940,000. Twenty million people now live within the 50-mile “peak injury zone” of Indian Point.
When most U.S. reactors were first built, it was assumed that radioactive waste would be stored onsite only temporarily before being transferred to a reprocessing facility. But reprocessing was banned in 1979 because of concerns about the dangers of stockpiling weapons-grade plutonium. Spent fuel rods were never intended to be indefinitely stored onsite at most nuclear power plants as they are today. In August 2005, it was learned that Indian Point 2’s spent fuel pool was leaking tritium and strontium-90 into the groundwater and the Hudson River; no one knows how long this leak of radioactive hazardous substances has been going on. Meanwhile, the Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste located in an earthquake prone area of Nevada is set to open in 2017, but still faces many legal challenges.
Of course, the biggest change in the 30-plus years since Indian Point was constructed is the threat of terrorism. When we hear the nightly news about terrorist plots and the Mideast at war, we can’t help but remember that terrorists flew past Indian Point on their way to the World Trade Towers on 9/11 and that nuclear power plant plans were found in their possession.
Given all we know now, would a new plant be approved at the Indian Point site today?
The NRC licenses new commercial power reactors for 40 years and renews licenses for an additional 20 years. Before new power plants receive approval for their initial operating license, many factors are taken into consideration, including population density around the plants and the viability of their evacuation plans in case of a radiological emergency. But contrary to what one would expect or hope, the license renewal process is extremely limited and examines only environmental effects and physical plant safety.
The environmental assessment reviews the effects an extended license would have on endangered species, the effects of cooling water systems on fish and ground water quality. The safety review makes sure there is a plan in place to maintain all physical structures and systems whose aging could affect safety.
Public hearings are held to inform the public and get its input (public meeting notices are posted on the NRC’s website at www.nrc.gov), and the public can petition the NRC to consider issues other than those within its narrow scope. When the review is completed, the NRC publishes its assessment and recommendation; the whole process takes about 30 months.
In May 2005, Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano petitioned the NRC to amend the rules for license renewal of all nuclear power plants. The petition would mandate the NRC to only relicense plants that meet all the requirements they would have to meet if applying for their initial operating license, and to evaluate conditions that have changed since the building of the plants, as well as worst-case scenarios. Spano’s petition is currently being reviewed by NRC staff and a decision probably won’t be issued before January 2007.
In June 2005, Representatives Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) introduced legislation into the House to reform the NRC’s relicensing process so that any renewal must meet the same criteria as an initial application to operate. Unfortunately, Lowey’s legislation has been stalled in the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality since last July.
To further pressure the NRC, legislation was sent to both the House of Representatives and the Senate this past spring requiring the NRC to conduct an Independent Safety Assessment (ISA) of Indian Point. This would compel the NRC to conduct an in-depth investigation into the design, construction, maintenance and safety performance of Indian Point’s reactors; evaluate its evacuation plan; and address the criticisms of the emergency plan raised in the January 2003 review of the plant done by former FEMA head James Lee Witt. In March, the House bill was referred to the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, but hopefully it will be brought to the floor for consideration before Congress adjourns this month.
Over 400 elected officials have called for Indian Point’s closure. To date, 59 municipalities, including five counties have passed resolutions opposing Indian Point’s relicensing. If Indian Point’s reactors are not relicensed, they will be shut down.
Indian Point is at a crossroads, so the time to act is now! If you want to prevent Indian Point from operating for another 20 years, visit Riverkeeper at www.riverkeeper.org and sign the petition against relicensing. Visit the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition at www.ipsecinfo.org to sign a petition calling for the closure of Indian Point. Call and write your representatives in Congress to let them know that you support the legislation calling for an ISA. To contact your representatives, visit www.visi.com/juan/congress/index.html.