Friday, October 12, 2012
U.S. Panel to Hear Opponents of Indian Point Nuclear Plant
The Indian Point nuclear plant is going on trial.
On Monday, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission will open a hearing to determine whether opponents, among them the Cuomo administration, have valid arguments against a 20-year extension of operating licenses for the Westchester County site’s reactors.
Three administrative law judges from the commission will take up an unusually long list of issues at the hearing, which will take place at a hotel in Tarrytown, N.Y., on 12 days in October and December.
In granting license extensions for reactors around the country, 70 to date, the commission has usually agreed to hear arguments on only a few technical issues. But in the case of Indian Point, the judges will hear at least 14.
Some of the issues from parties in the case are mechanical. Has Entergy, the plant’s owner, properly accounted for the possibility of corrosion in old pipes? What is the condition of the plant’s electrical cables, some of which are submerged in water and cannot be easily inspected? Has the plant been adequately monitoring buried pipes, some of which have already leaked, that carry radioactive materials?
Others are more slippery, like calculating the potential human costs of a major release of radioactive materials from the plant, in Buchanan, about 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan.
James Steets, a spokesman for Entergy, suggested that the plant’s opponents would try “to throw as much mud against the wall as they can and hope some of it sticks.”
“But by the same token,” Mr. Steets added, “it’s a process that allows for those who seriously have concerns to raise issues in a very public process.”
Either way, the tug of war over Indian Point’s future will probably go on for years. Ordinarily, the commission’s decisions on extending licenses take two and a half years. But Indian Point’s renewal application is now more than five years old, and the hearings have not even started.
The 40-year licenses of the plant’s two reactors are set to expire in September 2013 and December 2015. But under agency rules, the licenses will remain in effect until the commission makes a final ruling.
Since his days as the New York State attorney general, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has been arguing that the plant should be closed — that the reactors have safety problems and are vulnerable to terrorism. He has cited their proximity to nine million people in the New York metropolitan region.
The current attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, whose office represents the state in the hearings, has been slightly less emphatic.
“Whatever it is that the state determines to do, I’m the state’s lawyer and I will defend that,” Mr. Schneiderman, a Democrat, said last summer in an interview with WMHT, a public television station in Albany. “But I think they have a pretty steep hill to climb given the location of the plant and the population density around it and some of the problems that have come up with the plant.”
In a way, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is on trial, too, given that its staff has already concluded that relicensing is warranted.
After the three administrative law judges — two engineers and a lawyer — rule on the challenges, the losing side is expected to appeal directly to the five-member commission in Washington. If the commission upholds a challenge, Entergy will have to change hardware or procedures at Indian Point to solve the problem unless it decides that the cost makes retiring the plant more prudent economically.
Expert testimony from Entergy and the plant’s opponents has already been filed, so much of the hearing will consist of cross-examination of witnesses and questions from the judges. The state is pressing for additional opportunities to cross-examine witnesses, and the commission plans to rule on that request on Friday.
Another avenue the state is pursuing to shut down Indian Point, the denial of a state water-use permit, could threaten the plant regardless of the commission’s final decision. The state contends that the plant’s cooling water technology kills too many fish when it draws water from the Hudson River and that Entergy should build cooling towers.
But a court could reverse that decision if it found that the state’s real motivation was nuclear safety, a federal responsibility.