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A Slight Chance of Meltdown

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Spent fuel pool.  

In the 2011 version of our energy conversation, however, possible meltdown at Indian Point is not the only subject terrifying New Yorkers. The recent discovery of natural gas beneath the Marcellus Shale formation upstate has led to a boom in the mining procedure commonly known as fracking, which exhumes gas by pumping chemically treated water into the ground, and a corresponding boom in outrage, as many New Yorkers fear our watersheds will be despoiled in the process. Add to that the slow-moving disaster movie of climate change, which left-of-center New Yorkers feel obliged to tackle, though they aren’t exactly sure how. Then there is the fear—this one powered by the Entergy folks in particular—that we will rashly choose to close Indian Point, only for the city to wind up power-parched, blacked out and sweating during global-warming-enhanced summer heat waves that spark a return to the urban looting of the seventies. At least for the moment, energy policy in America comes down to which terrible outcomes we choose to tolerate over others. Here in New York, though the conversation tends to be astonishingly mind-numbing in the fine print, it is, on the macro level, unusually emotional: The decision of how we choose to power ourselves over the next half-century seems to hinge, to a surprising degree, on who can make the most compelling case that every other option is unacceptably frightening.

Andrew Cuomo has been trying to shut Indian Point for over a decade. In 2001, he signed on with a petition from Riverkeeper, the Hudson River environmental group, to close the plant. He campaigned against it when he ran for governor in 2002 and joined a suit against it as attorney general. But now comes his best chance to fulfill a longtime promise, with a hearing to renew Indian Point’s operating license set to take place next year. If the two reactors’ initial licenses are not renewed, then they must shut down in 2013 and 2015 (or soon thereafter). They require a federal permit, but the State Department of Environmental Conservation has to sign off, and Cuomo’s argument has always been, as he put it in his blog last month, “the reward doesn’t justify the risk.”

What precisely is the risk? Difficult to calculate. When Pollock plans for disasters at Indian Point, he talks about something called Beyond Design Basis Events. This includes Hostile Action-Based Events (e.g., terrorists) and SAMGs, a nuclear-industry acronym for Severe Accident Management Guidelines. “It doesn’t matter what event—say, a meteorite from the sky—it keeps you on your priorities,” he says.

Let’s suppose a Beyond Design Basis Event occurs in the shape of an earthquake larger than one Indian Point was built to withstand. As far as scenarios go, this is not science fiction. Plate tectonics was only a theory when Indian Point was being planned. Likewise, we now have a better picture of the patchwork of faults called the Ramapo Seismic Zone, which fans from eastern Pennsylvania to the Hudson Valley. A 2008 report by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory shows that large quakes of magnitude 5 have happened in the past—there have been at least 3 since 1677 in the Greater New York area—and that larger quakes should no longer be considered impossible or even unlikely. The magnitude-5.8 quake in Virginia hit in the vicinity of the North Anna nuclear plant with twice the amount of ground movement the structure was designed for, cracking a wall of a reactor’s containment unit and shifting the concrete pads under casks that store used nuclear fuel. It was the first time an operating U.S. nuclear plant experienced a tremor that exceeded its design parameters. (The plant is awaiting reopening.)

Say we experience a magnitude-7 quake in the area—something that the Columbia report says has a 1.5 percent chance of occurring in any 50-year period. According to Lynn Sykes, an author of the report, Indian Point was designed to withstand a quake of 5.3 at a distance of 35 miles. We now know it sits on a previously unidentified intersection of active seismic zones. A 7 on a fault a few miles away would involve dozens of times more force than the reactors could theoretically handle. Entergy estimates that Indian Point was built with more seismic capability than documented, and many nuclear-power experts agree. “We’re built on bedrock,” Pollock points out. But even if you give Indian Point the benefit of the doubt, and the core reactors survive a hit, a safety official inventing a severe-event scenario might plausibly imagine the failure of a few of the pipes running through the reactor—a hydrogen pipe essential for cooling the core, for instance, or a line carrying lubricating fluids. These kinds of breaks have happened before, and they often lead to fire, according to David Lochbaum, the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project.


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