“Warning System or Cause for Alarm?” by Kate Stone Lombardi
“MAYBE the third time will be a charm. Certainly the folks at Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns the Indian Point nuclear power plants, hope so. On Aug. 24, the company faces a third deadline to get its new $15 million emergency siren system up and running. So far, the process has been pretty discouraging.
The system was supposed to be working by the end of January. Entergy received a 75-day extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But on April 12, three days before the second target date, 31 sirens failed to sound during a test. After Entergy missed the April deadline, the N.R.C. fined the company $130,000.
With the August deadline less than two weeks away, Entergy officials said they were optimistic.
“We’re confident we’ll make it,” said Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy. “Obviously, there’s been pressure. It’s been real hard for the folks putting the siren project into place because these are capable, dedicated people frustrated by working through the complexity of the system and dealing with the criticism of it not being in place.”
It’s not surprising that they’re taking some heat. The public’s confidence has been sorely tested. If Entergy can’t get a siren system to work, it’s understandable that opponents are asking if it might have more serious problems running the nuclear facility itself.
The sirens are meant to alert residents within 10 miles of the plant of an emergency. The company is replacing its existing system, built in the 1970s, with a higher-tech model. The 155 new sirens have four-way speakers and backup batteries and can be activated by cellphone, radio signal or through the Internet.
So far, testing of the new system has exposed one problem after another. Sirens that were supposed to be heard miles away were inaudible in several areas. Alarms that were meant to be tested silently blared unexpectedly, startling residents who had not been warned.
Meanwhile, residents are being protected by the old system, which also has a history of failure, going out of service for hours at a time.
Mr. Steets said that two problems had led to delays in activating the new system. First, because it covers municipalities in four counties (Westchester, Putnam, Orange and Rockland), the process of getting permits for the sirens was cumbersome. Second, there were unanticipated difficulties with activating the sirens by radio signal.
“This is the very latest technology,” Mr. Steets said. “It’s a tough challenge, and the topography here doesn’t lend itself to communicating through the airwaves.”
All of these difficulties come in the midst of Entergy’s application to renew the nuclear power plants’ licenses for another 20 years. Indian Point 2’s license expires in 2013, Indian Point 3’s in 2015. The application process takes nearly three years.
The siren problem has no bearing on the relicensing. Neil Sheehan, an N.R.C. spokesman, said that the application review focused on two areas: programs to manage the effects of aging on the plants, and preparing an environmental impact statement.
The question of emergency preparedness — which of course includes the sirens — is part of N.R.C.’s daily oversight, Mr. Sheehan said. Should Entergy miss the third siren deadline, Mr. Sheehan said the N.R.C. would consider additional fines and other enforcement options.
Even if the emergency siren system isn’t formally part of the relicensing process, the plants’ opponents are making the connection. Lisa Rainwater, policy director for the environmental group Riverkeeper,, said, “For the communities around Indian Point, this siren debacle has become symbolic of Entergy’s inability to run this plant.”
She added that the plants’ problems were hardly limited to the sirens, citing the plants’ high shutdown rate, leaks of strontium 90 and tritium, and what she called a chilling work environment that discourages workers from identifying safety issues.
But no one, even the plant’s fiercest critics, should be rooting for the sirens to fail again this month. If you live within 10 miles of the power plants, as my family does, the stakes are too high for anything less than success.”
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