New York Attorney General Demands Earthquake Study On Nuclear Plant

Indian Point near New York City hasn't fixed an 18-year-old leak.

March 18, 2011 — -- New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman demanded Friday that federal nuclear regulators investigate the earthquake readiness of a nuclear power plant just north of New York City before they renew its license to operate. The Indian Point Energy Center, 24 miles from the city in Buchanan, N.Y., has been leaking water from a safety lining since 1993.

"It is beyond troubling that at the same time the federal government acknowledges increased seismic safety risk at some nuclear power plants in this country, it refuses to fully and openly assess these specific risks to Indian Point as part of its relicensing process," said Schneiderman at a press conference Friday, a week after a massive earthquake damaged nuclear reactors in Japan. "While the possibility of an intense earthquake is low, the potential for harm is so catastrophic that it has to be taken into account. . . . We are adamant that the relicensing of Indian Point not go forward until seismic risks are evaluated."

In 2007 Entergy, the Louisiana-based company that runs Indian Point, applied for a 20-year license extension for its operating reactors. The decision from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is expected in 2013. In a letter to the NRC, Schneiderman declared that the agency must amend its regulations to include seismicity in the scope of its licensing review.

Entergy says the site can withstand a 6.0 quake. Two fault lines intersect just north of Indian Point, but the biggest earthquake in New York in the past 70 years measured 5.8 and occurred near the Canadian border.

Both Schneiderman and his predecessor as attorney general, current New York governor Andrew Cuomo, have been harsh critics of the plant because of the potential danger it poses to those living nearby. More than 20 million people live within 50 miles of its two operating reactors. Cuomo ordered a state safety review of the plant Thursday.

In a move that may complicate the relicensing, the state has denied a request for water-quality certification of the plant, saying that the cooling plants "do not and will not comply with existing New York State water quality standards."

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Schneiderman said he is also concerned about the spent fuel rods that are currently in a decommissioned reactor on site. "We know from Japan that there is long-term risk from nuclear waste stored at Indian Point," said Schneiderman.

An NRC spokesperson declined to comment to ABC News about Schneiderman's statements, but said that the agency would respond to the Attorney General's letter after reviewing it.

Fed Official: 'Insane' To Have Reactors So Close To NYC

Indian Point, where the first reactor was licensed in 1962, has been controversial for decades. In 1979, Roberty Ryan, director of the NRC's Office of State Programs, told a presidential commission, "I think it is insane to have a three-unit reactor on the Hudson River in Westchester County, 40 miles from Times Square, 20 miles from the Bronx. "

"I'm sorry," said Ryan. "I just don't think that that's the right place to put a nuclear facility."

More than 30 years later, Indian Point has become the focal point of government and scientific community pressure to repair or shut many of the nation's aging and leaking plants. Indian Point is one of dozens of U.S. plants with licenses scheduled to expire by 2015.

On Thursday, the Union of Concerned Scientists called new attention to the leak at Indian Point , which is in a lining in the refueling cavity that is meant to stop leakage of radioactive materials in the event of an earthquake.

"NRC inspectors at Indian Point recently found that the liner has been leaking 2 to 20 gallons per minute since at least 1993 and that the plant owner has not yet delivered on repeated promises to fix the leak," said the activist group in a report. "That means the device installed to prevent leakage after an earthquake is leaking before an earthquake even occurs."

"By allowing this reactor to continue operating with equipment that cannot perform its only safety function, the NRC is putting people living around Indian Point at elevated and undue risk," the report says.

A spokesperson for Entergy said the container that is leaking is only filled during refueling, which occurs every two years, and leakage from the structure is captured and pumped out.

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"This is something we have been aware of and the NRC is aware of, and there are no safety issues with it," the spokesman said. "There is no leak of fuel."

Indian Point Safety Issues

But Indian Point's safety issues have not been confined to a single leak. In 2005, Entergy reported leakage in the spent fuel pool of reactor two, resulting in the emission of strontium and tritium. There was leakage from the spent fuel pool in reactor one in 2008.

In 2009, 100,000 gallons of water contaminated with trace amounts of tritium leaked out through a broken pipe. Indian Point is one of about two-dozen plants in the U.S. that have reported tritium leaks. The NRC noted that the amount of tritium was well below the level allowed to be released.

In 2010, the state denied Entergy's request for water-quality certification at the plant, saying that Indian Point's two operating units violate state law and the federal Clean Water Act because they kill close to 1 billion marine organisms annually, including an endangered sturgeon, while consuming 2.5 billion gallons of water per day.

Even skeptical scientists acknowledge, however, that so far, the environmental concerns at Indian Point and other aging reactors around the country fall short of the potential for catastrophe.

"The chances of a disaster at a nuclear plant are low," the Union of Concerned Scientists noted. "When the NRC finds safety problems and ensures that owners address them -- as happened last year at Oconee (Georgia), Browns Ferry (Alabama), and Kewaunee (Wisconsin) -- it keeps the risk posed by nuclear power to workers and the public as low as practical. But when the NRC tolerates unresolved safety problems -- as it did last year at Peach Bottom (Pennsylvania), Indian Point, and Vermont Yankee -- this lax oversight allows that risk to rise. The more owners sweep safety problems under the rug and the longer safety problems remain uncorrected, the higher the risk climbs."

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