March 23, 2011 8:54 pm

US officials make NY nuclear site top priority

US nuclear officials pledged to make New York’s Indian Point nuclear site “its first and top priority” in their review of 27 facilities across the country, Andrew Cuomo, New York governor, said this week.

The promise came after a meeting on Tuesday between Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff and Robert Duffy, New York lieutenant governor, about concerns over seismic risks at the site in the wake of Japan’s nuclear crisis following the March 11 earthquake.

The NRC has also agreed to join state officials in a cooperative review of the plant and Greg Jaczko, the federal watchdog’s chair, will personally inspect the site, Mr Cuomo said in a statement.

The regulator is in the midst of a study evaluating US nuclear plants’ “seismic risk and their ability to cope with it” based on data received in September 2010 from the US Geological Survey, said Beth Hayden, a NRC spokeswoman. In addition “the NRC is going to look at all aspects of the response of Japan to the earthquake and tsunami to determine if any action should be taken.” The study is expected to be released in 2012, she said.

Indian Point, located in Buchanan, New York, about 40 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, sits near two active seismic faults. The site has been the focus of intense scrutiny amid a growing debate over the safety of nuclear plants.

The two reactors at the New York site began operating in the mid-1970s, according to the NRC, well before the area’s seismic nature was identified. During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Mr Cuomo called for the reactors to be closed and alternate sources of energy to be found to replace their output. The site provides up to a third of the electricity used in New York City and Westchester County. The balance of electric power comes from natural gas, hydroelectricity, coal and petroleum.

“There’s no immediate safety concern” at Indian Point, Ms Hayden said. The US Geological Survey data “shows for eastern and central states, the reactors remain safe and the overall seismic risk remains low. However, some of them had different risk information that came out slightly higher than we had initially calculated. Indian Point is one of those.”

It “remains to be seen” whether the NRC’s evaluation will be affected by events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, she said. “We are going to be looking at what’s going on over in Japan and we will factor that into whatever seismic reviews we do.”

In a statement following Tuesday’s meeting with New York officials, the NRC said that “the robust design of US plants makes it highly unlikely that a similar event could occur in the United States.”

Entergy, the company that operates the Indian Point site, told Westchester County legislators on Monday that the plant is unlikely to be hit by an earthquake of the magnitude of the Japanese temblor or by the tsunami that destroyed Fukushima Daiichi’s backup power supply.

The largest recorded quake in the area was a 5.25-magnitude temblor in 1884, according to the 2008 Columbia University study that first identified the intersection of two seismic zones near Indian Point. Entergy says the plant can withstand a 6.1-magnitude earthquake.

But critics dispute that risk assessment. The same Columbia study found that magnitude six and seven quakes are “quite possible” along the faults. “The seismic risk is something that has to be examined quite carefully and independently,” said Phillip Musegaas, the Hudson River program director at Riverkeeper, an environmental group that has called for the site’s closure. “From six to seven is orders of magnitude stronger.”

In addition, Mr Musegaas said that while Indian Point may not be at risk for the tsunami like the one that knocked out power at the Japanese site, “a different kind of accident or natural disaster here could have the same effect.” Flooding or a storm surge from a hurricane could disable the plant’s back-up diesel generators, which are necessary to keep the nuclear fuel cooled and avoid a meltdown, he said.

Mr Musegaas also questioned evacuation at the site. Indian Point’s emergency plan, which is approved by the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, calls for evacuating a 10-mile zone around the plant. But following damage at Fukushima, Mr Jaczko, the NRC chair, advised Americans to stay 50 miles away from the site, and said he would recomment the same distance were the crisis occurring in the US, he said. According to Riverkeeper, some 20m people live within 50 miles of Indian Point, including the population of New York City and parts of New Jersey and Long Island.

“I’m not sure how you can square that with the regulation that we have now,” Mr Musegaas said. “We have clear evidence now that the radiation contamination in Japan goes far beyond this 10-mile zone.”

Ms Hayden said she was not aware of plans to change the standard evacuation zone.

Entergy has applied for 20-year extensions of its operating licenses for the Indian Point reactors, which come up for renewal in 2013 and 2015. Mr Cuomo said on Tuesday he “has long been an opponent of Indian Point and has worked to prevent the federal relicensing of the facility.”

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