Indian Point should be “autopsied”

Analysis of closed reactors would reveal dangers of those still operating

By Linda Pentz Gunter

The Indian Point reactors have had numerous problems and near-misses. A close look at Unit 2 would inform the safety status of reactors still running — and ought to prompt their shutdown as well, rather than extending operating licenses to 80 years.

The Indian Point Unit 2 nuclear reactor in New York closes down permanently on April 30. It is a moment replete with good news and golden opportunities that should not be wasted. 

As Richard Webster, Legal Director for Riverkeeper, wrote recently in Gotham Gazette, “there will be no problem keeping the lights on when Indian Point closes.”  But the question is, with what? Riverkeeper and others have launched a Beyond Indian Point campaign (a good choice of name!) which says that the electricity delivered by Indian Point will be replaced by renewables.

But will, or could be? Despite a ban on fracking in the state, New York still imports fracked gas from Pennsylvania. It is processed at a recently opened giant fracked gas power plant at Wawayanda, just 53 miles from New York City. The plant faced strong local opposition and acts of non-violent civil disobedience, including by actor and Beyond Nuclear supporter, James Cromwell.

There has also been opposition to “A massive, 42-inch, high-pressure gas pipeline [that] was built under the property of Indian Point to carry fracked gas to Canada for export,” posing risks even after Indian Point closes, since its inventory of high-level radioactive waste will  remain on site.

So while, even before closing the plant, New York had already made “considerable progress toward replacing Indian Point with demand reduction, additional transmission, and new renewables,” as Webster wrote, Beyond Indian Point has set out to ensure that the Indian Point electricity is indeed replaced by a mix of renewables, energy efficiency and conservation.

Indian Point

Indian Point has been dubbed “Chernobyl-on-the-Hudson.” (Photo: Tony Fischer/Wikimedia Commons)

The Indian Point Energy Center sits on the Hudson River in Westchester County, NY, just 30 miles from New York City. The first of its three reactors closed in 1974. Unit 3 is scheduled to close on April 30, 2021. Both Unit 2 and Unit 3 have suffered a number of technical and safety problems prompting recurring shutdowns. Their closures cannot come soon enough.

But while Indian Point joins a spate of other nuclear plant shutdowns in recent years —  including in Vermont, California, Massachusetts and New Jersey — reactor owners elsewhere are demanding massive subsidies to keep their old and decrepit nuclear reactors running. This includes applying for operating license extensions that would see these accidents-waiting-to-happen run for as long as 80 years.

Beyond Nuclear is opposed to the continued operation of commercial nuclear power plants and therefore to any license extensions or new licenses for future reactors (most of the latter remain uneconomical aspirations). We advocate for the phased shutdown of all nuclear power plants given their inherent dangers, health impacts, and the unsolved problem of managing the long-lived high-level radioactive waste they produce.

Nevertheless, while other reactors continue to operate, the Indian Point shutdown — along with its predecessors — delivers another essential opportunity; and that is for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to deny any and all license extension requests for existing nuclear power plants without first materially examining the condition of those closing.

That would mean a close and detailed technical analysis of actual aged components extracted from Indian Point 2 and the other shuttered reactors as they begin the decommissioning process. This would provide scientific information — as opposed to computer modeled conclusions as is the current practice — about the reactor safety margins at the still operating reactors. In other words, “dead” reactors should be autopsied to shed light on the safety status of the “living”.

Needless to say, such a suggestion has thus far fallen on deaf ears. Neither the NRC nor the economically foundering nuclear industry want to see their flimsy safety margins exposed. They do not want the public to know that so far, and from hereon out, catastrophic accidents are averted by luck rather than precaution. They will continue to bury the bodies whole while the diseased operating fleet keeps right on fissioning, potentially to a fatal outcome.

Yet it defies logic, and is frankly irresponsible, to run aging nuclear plants, which were supposed to operate at most for 40 years, as long as 80 years, without knowing precisely how the reactors’ harsh operational environment has affected key safety components that, if they failed, could jeopardize the health and safety of potentially millions of Americans.

Decommissioning provides that opportunity to find out. An autopsy of a closed reactor should be a mandatory procedure before any reactor of the same design continues to operate — indeed whether it is seeking a license extension or not.

There is precedent for reactor autopsy.

In December 2017, a report from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), “Criteria and Planning Guidance for Ex-Plant Harvesting to Support Subsequent License Renewal”, published online, strongly recommended a collaboration between the NRC, the national laboratories and the nuclear industry, to conduct strategically targeted autopsies on the growing number of permanently closed reactors. 

PNNL cover

A PNNL report recommending reactor “autopsy” mysteriously vanished, then reappeared on line heavily redacted and with the autopsy requirement expunged.

The 2017 PNNL report concluded that uncertainties on the progression of age-related degradation “will require harvesting materials from [decommissioning and operational] reactors” before approving second license applications.

But when, in September 2018, Beyond Nuclear brought the PNNL recommendation to the attention of the NRC during a public meeting, the report was abruptly removed from the national laboratory’s public website and the websites of the Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Nuclear Information System.

The NRC republished its revised report in March 2019, but only on the NRC website, after expunging many of the references for “required” strategic harvesting during decommissioning, along with numerous references to scientific and technical knowledge “gaps”.  

Under the Freedom Of Information Act, Beyond Nuclear has requested that the NRC publicly disclose all communications and rationale relating to deletions and the rewrite of the national laboratory’s contract work.

In the past, the NRC has used the excuse that there simply weren’t enough closed reactors to make an autopsy project worthwhile. Yet, while that is no longer true today, it never really was.

There were several earlier missed opportunities to conduct full autopsies, including in the 1990s at Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts and Trojan in Oregon, where the NRC staff and public interest groups had sought to have base metal samples cut from embrittled reactor pressure vessels. These would then be archived for laboratory analysis to inform operational safety as initial license renewals for 40-60 years were submitted. However, the industry refused, and the vessels were filled with nuclear waste, low-density concrete and buried whole in Barnwell, SC and Hanford, WA.  (The above news report describes the failure, shutdown and destruction of the Trojan reactor.)

That should not happen at Indian Point. As Webster points out, amongst the myriad safety flaws that developed at Indian Point, there have been “troubling problems with aging of the bolts that hold the reactors together,” and “the pools at the plant that house spent nuclear fuel have been leaking toxic, radioactive water into the ground since the 1990s, contaminating the local soil and the Hudson River.”

This increases the likelihood that similar such problems exist in other units across the country. It may be too late to bring up the bodies at Yankee Rowe and Trojan, but it is high time we postponed the interments for Indian Point and other reactors until we know precisely what risks their “siblings” — and the public — are facing.

Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear, contributed to this story. Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and the curator and editor of Beyond Nuclear International.

Headline photo: “IMG_1642” by Time’s Up! Environmental Organization is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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