Spent Fuel Pools

The Spent Fuel Pools at Indian Point

– A View from the Neighborhood –

By Marilyn Elie

Aerial view of the Indian Point nuclear power plant along th

Part 1: The Debate Over Indian Point

Grassroots organizing around Indian Point has waxed and waned over the last two decades according to what has happened at the plants.  Each time there has been an incident people have responded with meetings, information campaigns and electoral politics and each time the circle has widened.  From the prolonged shutdown of Indian Point 2 years ago to reinforce a “safety culture” to the steam generator replacement, to red findings of degraded cornerstones, to the plane that hit the twin towers flying right past the reactors, to the current Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearings, the circle of concern has deepened.

Invariably Nuclear Regulatory Commission meetings have polarized the Hudson River Valley communities. Entergy has relied on “members of unions like the plumbers and boiler makers to turn out at meetings to “get their card punched.” During one packed hearing that took place after a spill of radioactive water into the Hudson the NRC representative proclaimed that he could not understand why people were so upset.  He went on to add that the spill was well below the limit of radioactive water that Entergy was already discharging into the river, so why the big fuss?  For many it was the first exposure to the policy of regular and routine releases of radioactive material into the water and air.  Needless to say this response was radicalizing for many.  This pattern of insensitivity, and obfuscation, along with deliberate and incidental lies over the years has led to a distrust of the agency and a strong sense of complicity between the NRC and Entergy.  After all, at each meeting the utility and the regulators are the people in the suits, speaking the same language, discussing the same regulations and united for one purpose – to keep Indian Point making a profit.

While Indian Point has polarized our community there is one thing that many of varying views toward nuclear power can agree on: it is the wrong plant in the wrong place.  Of all the problems and risks a nuclear plant can present, high level radioactive waste storage at Indian Point is the most pressing danger to those of us who live near the plants and also to the 21 million people living and working within 50 miles of the reactors.  As David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientist has stated in testimony to Congress, the pools are housed in buildings little more substantial than a local Kmart.  The terrorist attack on the twin towers made it abundantly clear that ordinary commercial construction is not appropriate for the storage of 2,000 tons of irradiated fuel rods, especially when the pools have been re racked to four times their intended density.  Since the reactor which contains much less fuel is in a hardened structure, it is difficult  to understand why, in a rational world,  the regulatory agency charged with protecting public health and safety has not required that all fuel rods receive the same protection?  When will the NRC move to reduce the density of the spent fuel pools and thus reduce the risk of a spent fuel fire and the grave danger to the all? This remains to be seen.  Their calculations indicate that the probability of a spent fuel fire is slight.  However, risk assessment is not an appropriate model for decision making when the severity of the consequences to people, property, pets and the environment is so tragically severe.

Part 2: Regulator or Industry Bedfellow?

It was only when the pools containing irradiated fuel bundles were packed to capacity, rendering continued operation impossible, that a corporate decision was made to begin moving some of the older rods to dry cask storage.  This has not affected the critical density of the rods stored in the pools as only enough rods are removed to make room for what is being added due to refueling. Right now irradiated fuel is stored at four times the recommended amount.  It is plain that public safety was not involved in the decision to begin the process of dry cask storage; the decision is strictly economic on the part of the corporation and is sanctioned by the NRC.

The Holtec casks that Entergy selected and the NRC approved have received mixed reviews and under the best of computer modeling are expected to last only 300 years. They have already started to crack 15 years after being installed near salt water in another reactor.  (The Hudson is a tidal estuary and salty near Indian Point.) Many ordinary citizens express disbelief and astonishment at the disconnect in the time frame between the life of dry casks and the life of high level radioactive waste.  Despite concerns raised over and over again, it has taken a court decision, the waste Confidence Ruling, to require the agency to examine this issue. That is shameful. To see how Finland is creating a hiding place for high level waste that must never be disturbed visit http://www.intoeternitythemovie.com/ and watch the chilling documentary Into Eternity.

The current chair of the NRC, Allison Macfarlane, a geologist by training, and a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which the President assembled to look at the issue of nuclear waste, seems to be in favor of dry cask storage. She has indicated an interest in Hardened On Site Storage (HOSS) which is the safest of all on site practices. Macfarlane signed on to a paper on this topic with other experts at Princeton in 2003.. The document can be found at  http://www.princeton.edu/sgs/publicatio,s/sgs/pdf/11_1Alvarez.pdf. It was written for a lay audience and is well worth reading for details and documentation on the importance of this matter. It remains to be seen if the chair of the agency has had a change of thinking or even if she can make a difference in current practice within the agency.

The arbitrary refusal of the NRC to deal with waste storage is similar in manner to the refusal to include emergency evacuation or new earthquake data in the relicensing hearings.  Citing “the back fit rule” the agency automatically barred from contentions these two issues of great community concern because they were decided at the time the original license was granted! However, it is the agency which calls the shots and issues the interpretation of rules in ever more restrictive ways. It is the same agency which has moved toward “streamlining” its procedures by eliminating public participation and comment at the urging of the nuclear industry.

All of this adds to a feeling of distrust of the NRC and also affects expectations in regard to the license renewal process. This feeling of distrust was most evident at the last of the scheduled public comment meetings in Cortlandt Manor when the public shouted down the NRC agenda for the evening and insisted on more time to be heard. The close and cozy relationship between the regulator and the utility has been emphasized again and again at the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hearings.  At one point the chief judge asked the NRC representative about specifics of a particular technical requirement. He asked because it was not possible to tell if what was written was a guideline or a regulation since there were no built in parameters for insuring compliance: no dates, no intervals for testing, no supervision, nothing.  The NRC response: Entergy has a vested interest in keeping the plant running properly and would know when to perform the necessary tasks. Even the judge seemed surprised.

When the adequacy of the Indian Point decommissioning fund was questioned the NRC pointed out that reactors could simply be put in storage like Indian Point 1 to allow the fund to grow. Long term storage of high level radioactive waste seems to be more and more favored by the agency because of shortfalls in the decommissioning funds.  Estimating what it costs to decommission a reactor and clean up the site is hardly an exact science and so it would seem prudent to overestimate rather than underestimate what might be needed. Might it be assumed that this has not happened because of the reluctance of Entergy to contribute more money to the fund? It must also be taken into account that as a plant sits in storage waiting for the decommissioning fund to grow, the cost of decommissioning will also grow.

If this is not the case, why has the formula NRC uses to determine the money needed for decommissioning when the license expires remained the same? If decommissioning is delayed won’t the cost rise over the years even as the fund grows? Who will pay property taxes on the land for all of that time? There is no profit to be made from a plant in SAFSTOR. Won’t that cause Entergy to try to skimp on maintenance and security over the years?  Who will watchdog the plant and the process? Won’t busy staff have higher priorities? Will there be a civilian review board as part of the process? Why should we trust the NRC to adequately supervise a closed plant over so many years?? What happens if the utility goes out of business in subsequent years?

The decommissioning fund is a company asset and it is impossible to predict what might happen in bankruptcy court.   What if Entergy merges with another company while decommissioning other power plants and there is no money left in the multitude of limited liability corporations that make up Entergy Northeast? The fund covers only structures like the containment building that house material regulated by the NRC. Who pays for the cleanup of administrative buildings, the parking lots, or the lake of radioactive water underneath the plant that is even now making its way to the Hudson River?

Given the lack of trust in the NRC, and the local history on this issue, there is little that would give any assurance that these issues will be addressed in a way that protects our health and safety or the environment. Entergy has promised to clean up the site in a “reasonable amount of time” once the plant closes.  Will the NRC avoid all of the aforementioned problems and move to define reasonable as a decade rather than the 60 years or more years that the industry prefers?  Will it use the power it now has to require Entergy to rapidly move fuel bundles into the relative safety of dry cask storage?

It is important to note that several local organizations such as the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, and Westchester Citizens Awareness Network have taken the position that high level radioactive waste must not be transported to a central repository for storage, leaving a radioactive trail across the country. A trail that frequently ends at poor communities of color like the one in Barnwell, South Carolina. We have used the electricity that was generated in creating this toxic waste and need to take responsibility for it.  Creating a plan for securing it through the ages borders on science fiction but is something that must be done.

The sooner the reactor is decommissioned  the less high level radioactive waste we will have to deal with and the safer the spent fuel and all of the millions of people who live in the Hudson River Valley will be without a working reactor next door at Indian Point.

January 2013 – Marilyn Elie –  eliewestcan@gmail.com

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