Underscores a Pattern of Violations at Indian Point

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s imposition of a $1.2 million fine on Entergy marks a new and welcome level of enforcement of public safety requirements at the Indian Point nuclear plant.  The DEC fine, which stems from a November 2010 transformer explosion, fire and oil spill into the Hudson River at Indian Point 2, is as far as we can determine the largest fine Entergy has paid — significantly higher than any the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has imposed — for non-compliance at Indian Point.  Hudson River Sloop Clearwater joins others in praising the State’s move to make Entergy more accountable for its longstanding violations of laws and regulations.

“This action demonstrates that the DEC is taking its responsibility to protect the Hudson River seriously,” said New York State Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera of the Bronx.  “The DEC and the Attorney General’s office are also calling for closed cycle cooling to protect our declining fish population and addressing many other technical issues related to the relicensing of Indian Point.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in assuring that nuclear power plants are relicensed than in taking a hard look at the implications of relicensing in the context of a post-Fukushima world. Because the NRC considers evacuation to be out of the scope of the relicensing process, I am calling for the New York State Assembly to hold hearings on the viability of current evacuation plans for Indian Point and what can be done to better assure the public health and safety.”

In light of the 2010 explosion and a pattern of other violations and preventable mishaps at Indian Point, Clearwater is renewing its call for the NRC to deny a 20-year renewal of Indian Point’s operating licenses, set to expire in 2013 and 2015, and for the plant to shut down.  The same sort of chronic failures to properly inspect, report, and maintain Indian Point’s transformer facilities as required by law can also lead to other, more serious accidents and releases of radioactivity.

“This is symptomatic of how disasters happen,” said Clearwater’s executive director Jeff Rumpf. “We are told we are safe and that redundant protection systems will work, but they did not work. There was an explosion, and toxins were released into the Hudson. If the same thing were to happen where spent fuel rods are stored, we would have a disaster of great magnitude. I applaud the State for stepping in and being vigilant where the Federal government has not.”

“This was not the first transformer explosion at Indian Point,” said Clearwater’s environmental director Manna Jo Greene.  “This one resulted in the spilling of thousands of gallons of petroleum-based transformer oil into the discharge canal and into the Hudson River when the containment system failed.  That was completely preventable and should never have happened.  When the first transformer fire occurred years before, it should have signaled the need to change out all the transformers in this aging system.  Failure to insist on this mechanical upgrade demonstrates Entergy’s wait-and-see attitude, and faulty oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

In April of 2007 there had been a similar transformer explosion and fire at Indian Point 3.  At that time, Entergy spokesperson Jim Steets claimed that the transformer had just gone through a rigorous, monthly inspection that found nothing wrong. “There was no reason from the program” why the transformer should have failed, Steets said.  But according to The New York Times, “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigated and said plant workers had failed to spot potential deterioration in a part, which contributed to the fire.”

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan cited failed bushings (ceramic insulators on top of the transformer) as the part that apparently caused the April 2007 explosion. According to the DEC’s consent order, in November 2010, the same problem, a failed bushing, again caused Indian Point 2’s transformer to explode (twice) and burn.

In the 2010 explosion, all 20,000 gallons of insulating oil the transformer contained leaked out, and the surrounding containment wall and moat were breached. Entergy hired private contractors who managed to recover some 10,000 gallons of the spill from the containment moat area, the discharge canal, and the Hudson, but the rest escaped and much of it contaminated the River, violating Indian Point’s State Pollution Discharge Elimination (SPDES) permit. $600,000 of the $1.2 million DEC penalty is to fund an environmental cleanup plan, yet to be specified.

DEC investigations of the 2010 incident found Entergy had violated multiple state and federal laws, regulations and codes, including the Clean Water Act.   In addition to violating its SPDES permit, by law Entergy was obligated to “properly maintain all disposal facilities…to achieve compliance with the conditions of the SPDES permit,” but did not — the DEC discovered that the containment wall around the transformers had been notched and cracked.  Entergy decided not to disclose the spill to the public at all, and was slow to report it to the DEC.  Entergy is required by law to notify the DEC of the discharge immediately, and in no circumstances more than two hours after the incident, but failed to report the November 2010 incident for nearly three hours. Critics charged Entergy even made it difficult for DEC officials gain access to the site to assess the full extent of the spill.

The DEC investigation found additional violations in Entergy’s chemical storage tanks.  Entergy’s Spill Prevention Report (SPR) left three storage tanks out entirely, while the SPR and compliance reports for IP2 and IP3 failed to include sufficient detail (such as information tank life expectancy) going back as far as nine years.  Tanks were left uninspected for longer than the mandated five-year period.  Though tanks not inspected within five years are required to be taken out of service, these uninspected tanks continued to be used.

Despite the DEC investigation and fine, serious problems with Indian Point’s transformers persist.  In late February, Indian Point 3 shut down due to the buildup of hydrogen and other combustible gases in transformer oil, a sign that the transformer equipment is degrading.  Although this time it did not result in an explosion, sparks could have touched one off.  The transformer was taken offline and troubleshot, according to Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi, quoted in a March 2 news report.  At that time he said it was “too soon to tell” whether the malfunctioning transformer would be replaced or repaired and put back into service.

Entergy’s reluctance to replace aging, malfunctioning equipment is intolerable in the post-Fukushima world.  While an oil leak is not comparable to the disastrous meltdown in Japan a year ago, transformer explosions are very dangerous events, and Entergy’s track record of longstanding, repeated violations and preventable mishaps at Indian Point indicates a cavalier attitude towards legal and regulatory compliance that ignores and denies the lesson of Fukushima, that “it could happen here.”

In fact, Indian Point has risk factors that are not only comparable, but in some cases far worse than those of  Fukushima, including Indian Point’s location at the convergence of two earthquake fault lines, the much greater population density surrounding it, and its totally inadequate, unimplementable evacuation plan. Indian Point’s spent fuel pools contain about three times as much radioactivity as all the spent fuel pools of Fukushima’s stricken reactors put together.

To mark the one-year anniversary of Fukushima, Clearwater recently organized a forum for first responders and emergency planners in our region. It featured visiting Japanese experts and eyewitnesses who lived and worked through the disaster.  They told the audience that even Japan’s evacuation and safety procedures, which are much more robust and rigorously drilled than ours, left residents unprepared.  In the end, the plans and procedures bore no relationship to what actually happened during the disaster. Still less will Entergy’s management of the plant, the current level of federal oversight and current emergency planning protect us from or prepare us for a serious nuclear accident at Indian Point.

 “It is imperative that emergency response and evacuation procedures be revamped to consider the real possibility of a serious accident at Indian Point” said Peekskill Mayor Mary F. Foster. “There is much that can be learned from the first responders at Fukushima and I am thankful that the Governor and NYS DEC are taking these possibilities seriously.”

The DEC’s demonstrated willingness to ramp up enforcement and accountability at Indian Point focuses scrutiny on Entergy’s pattern of non-compliance, and is a significant and welcome step forward.  Clearwater also believes that in order to eliminate the unacceptable risk of a catastrophic accident at Indian Point, extension of its operating licenses must be denied, and the plant must close.

For more information, please contact Manna Jo Greene, Environmental Action Director at MannaJo@Clearwater.org, or 845-265-8080, ext.7113.

NOTE TO EDITORS AND PRODUCERS:  To request interviews with spokespeople quoted above, contact Julia Church, julia@clearwater.org, 845-265-8080 x 7112, or Stephen Kent, skent@kentcom.com 914-589-5988