“WHITE PLAINS — Opponents of the Indian Point nuclear power plants, including New York State, got their day in court on Monday — sort of — to explain why they thought the two reactors should not be allowed to operate 20 more years. It signified the first time that a state had stepped forward to flatly oppose license renewals.
But like much about the tangled history of the plants in Westchester County, the hearing before a three-judge panel appointed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission was not that simple.
The proceedings got off to a prickly start when a member of the audience seated in a courtroom at the Westchester County Courthouse here complained to the panel chairman, Lawrence G. McDade, that he could not hear what was being said. “The acoustics here are what the acoustics here are,” said Mr. McDade, a former military judge, who was himself using a microphone.
The difficulty was that about 20 lawyers seated at five tables and flanked by cartons of documents, as well as another 20 or so who spilled over into the jury box, did not have microphones.
When Michael B. Kaplowitz, vice chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, rose and said he could not hear the lawyers representing him — and that he was not a member of the audience but a participant — Mr. McDade told Mr. Kaplowitz that he could read the transcript later.
After a lunch break, Mr. McDade relented and had more microphones brought in.
Acoustics were not the only setback for those opposed to relicensing the two plants in Buchanan, on the east bank of the Hudson River 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan.
It was immediately clear that for the opponents — the state, Westchester County and several environmental groups — to win the day, they would have to persuade the panel and the regulatory agency itself to reconsider what arguments are admissible.
The commission has ruled that for an argument to be considered in license extension hearings, it must deal with problems that may arise because the license is extended. The state contends, however, that the region’s extraordinary population density, when considered together with the threat of terrorism or earthquake, makes the plants unsafe.
“The presence of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in our midst is untenable,” the state argued in a legal brief.
Joan Leary Matthews, a lawyer for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an opening statement that “whatever the chances of a failure at Indian Point, the consequences could be catastrophic in ways that are almost too horrific to contemplate.”
Sherwin Turk, a lawyer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that questioning whether the site was a good idea in the first place was not within the scope of the proceeding.
Participants in the hearing said the discussion would involve factors like whether Entergy, the operator of the two reactors, had a satisfactory program in place for monitoring whether electrical cables or metal parts deteriorate too much as they age.
Lawyers for the state say that the dispute over what arguments can be considered is likely to end up in federal court.
There have been a number of episodes since the reactors opened in the 1970s, when Indian Point’s Unit 2 was operated by Consolidated Edison and Unit 3 by the New York Power Authority, which had one of the worst reliability records in the country.
In October 1980, the operators at Indian Point 2 let the building fill with water from the Hudson River so that the outside of the reactor vessel was immersed in cold, brackish water while the inside was operating at more than 500 degrees.
In 1982, Unit 2 sprang a leak in a steam generator tube, which can result in jagged ends crashing into neighboring tubes and sending radioactive water out of the primary containment.
Then, in August 1999, Unit 2 shut down unexpectedly and batteries kicked in to run control room instruments, but the operators were unaware of the situation until about a day later, when the batteries died.
In the six and a half years since Entergy bought the reactors, they have generally run far more smoothly, and for many more hours of the year. In addition, Entergy has raised the power output of the plants to just over 2,000 megawatts, about 18 percent higher than their initial design.
Entergy has had some problems as well. There was a transformer fire at Unit 3 in April 2007, and the company missed a deadline for replacing emergency sirens. There were also difficulties tracing the source of a leak of radioactive contaminants into the groundwater.
The hearings that began Monday will run most of this week, and after lengthy deliberations the panel will make a recommendation to the full regulatory commission on whether the operating licenses should be extended. The license for Unit 2 expires in September 2013, and for Unit 3 in December 2015. According to participants, this process is likely to take two years.
Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey have all entered license renewal proceedings, but according to officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, those states were demanding guarantees or changes in procedures, but not the closing of plants.
In the coming weeks the licensing board will wade through contentions by the opponents to determine their relevance and significance, Mr. McDade said
As he observed Monday morning, “There are more motions in this case than I’ve seen in any other.””
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