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A Slight Chance of Meltdown

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Dry casks storing older spent fuel rods. All spent fuel remains on-site; the blue outline marks where the next cask will be deposited.  

If there was a fire in the reactor, then Indian Point would, by regulation, begin to shut down. Fortunately, if the sprinkler system was damaged in the quake, then workers could turn to the additional fire equipment and backup generators installed after 9/11. Unfortunately, the scenario that involves enough shaking to damage the reactor building also involves damage to the buildings containing the emergency fire equipment. Indian Point would then call in local fire officials, who, Entergy boasts, are well prepared to deal with radiation releases. But suppose this quake has damaged area transportation routes. Suppose trees and wires are down and the plant is running on backup power. Suppose emergency officials are dealing with other buildings that have collapsed on emergency equipment: A 2001 study argued that a magnitude-7 quake in nearby Bergen County would destroy 14,000 buildings and damage 180,000. In this scenario, the fire spreads and the reactor is no longer under control.

The core begins to heat up. Perhaps technicians would fashion another cooling system—theoretically, they could call on the Hudson River to flood the reactor. But if that fails, it would be a matter of hours before the ceramic pellets of uranium evaporate the water meant to cool them. This melted pile of pellets would quickly become a molten blob, heating up toward 5,000 degrees and melting through the floor of the reactor. Then hydrogen would build up, which would cause an explosion. In Fukushima, pieces of fuel were found over a mile away; imagine a geyser hurling radioactive material to Peekskill at 1,000 miles an hour.

As far as releases of radiation go, the NRC mandates only a ten-mile evacuation area for Indian Point. In other words, official policy states that New York City would be spared any sizable risk from a meltdown. But perhaps it’s more sensible to look at what the NRC had to say in Japan. After the Fukushima meltdown, the NRC told Americans living there to clear out of a 50-mile zone. Subsequently, the Japanese government declared huge swathes of land uninhabitable for decades. The local 50-mile equivalent is a circle defined by Kingston to the north; Bridgeport, Connecticut, to the east; the Delaware Water Gap to the west; and the southern tip of Staten Island to the south. It includes all of the 8.2 million people living in New York City.

If you agree with the governor that this small risk of contamination of 2.7 percent of the U.S. population is not worth the benefit of nuclear power, then you have to come up with some other way to replace the 2,000 megawatts of energy Indian Point currently provides to New York City and Westchester. And this is where other fears start to come into play. The disaster scenario preferred by the pro–Indian Pointers began showing up this summer in large brochures mailed around the city: In a dark room, a child studies by candlelight as a mother prepares dinner wearing a headlamp. It is a depiction of a cavelike city, where blackouts are a way of life, where (as shown inside) Times Square is dark. “Take nuclear power out of New York’s energy mix and we could be left in the dark again,” the brochure says.

The brochure was paid for by a group called the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance (AREA), which reportedly receives funding from Entergy, and the mailings are just the start of a nuclear-friendly multimedia public-relations campaign. (A recent post on Indian Point’s Facebook page: “Have you seen the Indian Point Energy Center YouTube channel? Which video is your favorite?”) And it is not just Entergy that supports Indian Point. For the most part, the closer you get to people who have political or transactional interactions with a public that risks losing power, the greater the concern about keeping the lights on. Con Edison, which completed the sale of Indian Point to Entergy days before September 11, 2001, is keeping a low profile on the issue. “We’re trying not to take sides,” says Joseph Oates, a vice-president at the company. Oates has, however, testified to the State DEC that a closed Indian Point could mean loss of power, and he speaks in drastic terms. “We will not have enough energy for everybody, and electricity will be rationed,” he testified. “The first calls will come to us: ‘How come I don’t have electricity?’ ”

Likewise, Mayor Bloomberg, whose extension on his own term limit ends a few months after the license for reactor No. 2 expires, has called Indian Point “critical.” City Hall estimates that an Indian Point shutdown would lead to a 5 to 10 percent rise in Con Ed bills. And if you talk to anybody who works with the energy grid, he will inevitably get around to that blistering day last July when the city took its biggest ever power draught—13,166 megawatts, a figure that makes city officials understandably jittery. “If you close it,” asks Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, “what’s in its place?”


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