Indian Point says it can handle more than a 6.0 earthquake
As Japan scrambles to pick up the pieces following Friday’s earthquake and tsunami, the devastated country also has to concern itself with three nuclear power plants that are at risk of melting down. With a nuclear plant, Indian Point Energy Center, in nearby Buchanan, some Hudson Valley residents are concerned that such a scenario could unfold in their backyard. Indian Point officials say the plant can withstand a very powerful quake, but detractors see the events in Japan as an example of why the plant should be shut down.
A 2008 study by Columbia University reported that Indian Point is more likely to be affected by seismic activity than originally thought because it is located near a previously unidentified intersection of two active seismic zones. According to the study, the plant sits within “a mile or two” of both a seismic zone running from Stamford to Peekskill, and the Ramapo seismic line, a 185 mile system of faults running from the mid- Hudson Valley to eastern Pennsylvania.
A Monday press release from Entergy, the owner and operator of Indian Point, says that all of their nuclear plants were designed and built to withstand the effects of natural disasters, including earthquakes and catastrophic flooding.
“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that safety-significant structures, systems and components be designed to take into account the most severe natural phenomena historically reported for each site and surrounding area,” the press release reads. “In determining the appropriate standards, the NRC includes an added safety margin to ensure that the standards take into account the risk that a future event … could be more severe than any recorded historical event.”
According to the Columbia study, based on the lengths of the faults, the detected tremors, and calculations of how stresses build in the crust, a magnitude 6.0 quake or even a 7.0 is possible in the area. “[Researchers] calculate that magnitude 6.0 quakes take place in the area about every 670 years, and 7.0 quakes every 3,400 years,” the study reads.
“Indian Point admits they can’t handle an earthquake that large,” said Paul Gallay, executive director of Riverkeeper, a local environmental group. “They say they can handle a 6.0 earthquake. A 7.0 is 32 times more powerful than a 6.0.”
However, Jerry Nappi, a representative of Indian Point, said that the plant was built with a 6.0 earthquake in mind, but in fact, it can withstand a more powerful quake. “Based on historical data, the worst postulated earthquake is a 6.0,” said Nappi. “Engineers from the government and from the company have looked at the way the plant was designed over the years and determined that it can handle something greater than a 6.0.”
Gallay said that Indian Point stores most of their spent fuel in pools in a building that is “not particularly well protected.” Instead, he recommends moving the majority of spent fuel into dry casks; steel cylinders that are either welded or bolted closed and apparently provide greater containment.
Besides dry cask storage, Gallay and Riverkeeper are calling for “immediate, independent, and tough-minded analysis of the earthquake risk” to Indian Point.
Gallay added that the plant should be shut down until such a study is complete.
Indian Point’s licenses for operating Unit 2 and Unit 3 are set to expire in 2013 and 2015, respectively. In April 2007, a joint application was filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for renewal. According to the Indian Point website, renewals should take 30 months. However, environmental groups such as Riverkeeper have been an obstacle to obtaining a new license.
“According to data obtained from the New York Independent System Operator, on 1,119 occasions over the past three years, Indian Point provided more than 35 percent of the electricity for New York City and Westchester,” Indian Point says on their website. “Nuclear energy is a price-stable energy source and does not fluctuate like natural gas prices or other fossil fuels. For New York State’s electrical grid, closing Indian Point would reduce the amount of power available by 11 percent. Resulting blackouts will cost area businesses an additional $3 billion.”
Paul Gallay acknowledges that New York State has not done enough to prepare for potentially losing Indian Point, but cites California’s record of energy conservation as proof that New York can handle the loss. “We absolutely can do what we need to. It’s like in California, in 2000, when they had rolling blackouts due to power shortages,” he explained. “In the following year they saved 14 percent through conservation, which is more than Indian Point supplies to New York, in overall use.”
“We can conserve what we need to in order to make our community safer and eliminate the risks at Indian Point,” Gallay added.
Last week, Indian Point shut down the Unit 3 nuclear plant for its 16th scheduled refueling, according to a press release. “While Unit 3 is shut down to be refueled, more than 2,000 skilled workers will perform hundreds of scheduled maintenance activities and other improvements to the power plant,” said Joe Pollock, vice president and top Entergy official at Indian Point.