Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fire Safety Regulations at Indian Point Challenged

Last year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a request from Entergy that allowed the utility company to change the type of fire safety protection used at their Indian Point Nuclear power plants to a material that resists fire for a shorter amount of time. The request was granted as an “exemption” from Entergy’s operating license.

On Monday, May 11, a case arguing that the NRC lacked the authority to grant the exemption was heard at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City. Arguing against the NRC was Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester) and New York State Assistant Attorney General John Sipos.

Granting an exemption does not require public input but a public hearing is required when amending a power plant’s operating license. Brodsky and Sipos argued that the regulatory agency mischaracterized the request as an “exemption” rather than an amendment to the license and the NRC “failed to consider relevant evidence in making its decision.”
At the crux of the case was the impact of reducing the fire safety protection at Indian Point. If a fire broke out at the plant the new fire resistant materials lasting 24 minutes as a barrier to a blaze, would not be enough time to catch a fire especially with current inspections scheduled every hour, Sipos and Brodsky argued during the proceeding that lasted over an hour. They also argued the dangerous consequences of fires in electrical junction boxes carrying 480 volts of power to cables that control safe, emergency shut downs, if needed.

NRC attorney Robert Rader held that the NRC staff determined there was “reasonable assurance that the fire-protection measures approved by the exemptions would control any credible blaze in affected areas at Indian Point.” Rader held that the agency's rules for granting an exemption are spelled out in the Atomic Energy Act as part of the “comprehensive regulatory framework” and the “ongoing review of nuclear power plants located in the United States.”
The NRC claimed that using lower quality fire barriers have been allowed at many other plants in the country and have granted ‘exemptions’ to certain fire safety standards over the last 8 years.

Yesterday’s hearing marks the first time the NRC’s right to grant these exemptions without alerting the public has been challenged. Of the three judges hearing the argument was the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor who is widely rumored to be on Obama’s list of choices for the Supreme Court. It is unclear when the judges will rule on the case.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Underground at Indian Point: pipe leaks and cables

Last week Matt Wald of the New York Times reported about a leak discovered at Indian Point in February.

Wald’s lead, however, seemed to indicate the leak was new and the actual date of the leak followed some three sentences later.
The news hook for Wald was that Congressmen Ed Markey (D-Mass) and John Hall (D-NY) had just sent a high pitched letter dated April 30, 2009, to the NRC about the February leak saying “We are shocked that a 1.5 inch diameter hole, leaking at a rate of 18 gallons per minute, could develop without detection.” Undoubtedly this was a serious leak and when Entergy located and plugged up the hole in the corroded, buried pipe, it was estimated that 100,000 gallons of water laced with low levels of tritium had escaped.

The local papers reported on the leak in February but the New York Times did not. Instead, the paper ran a metro brief about Congress calling for an independent safety assessment of Indian Point.

My story about the February leak appeared in The North County News,

It’s important to note that the New York Times needed a national hook to report the two-month old leak, the "after the fact" has become a growing trend for the “paper of record” and veers away from local coverage, even if it does affect some 30 million people.

Washington usually deals with the issue of nuclear power in the greater context of energy, so the news media gives us less information about potential problems at aging nuclear power plants, such as Indian Point, and how they are being regulated.

The story about the leak is the tip of the iceberg when dealing with inaccessible sprawling networks of underground pipes and cables necessary to run a nuclear power plant. Failures in these systems can come from a variety of things, including age, water damage, earthquake shifting, rats or other burrowing vermin.

Questions to be asked: How does the NRC monitor these underground systems when they can’t see them? Is there a list of inaccessible underground cable systems and pipes showing when they were installed and the rates of failure?

In a letter from the NRC to Entergy dated October 30, 2008, the regulatory group thanks Entergy for supplying some information about how they assess their underground cables.

The NRC also requested the information from other plants including Oyster Creek in New Jersey because of a failed buried cable needed for emergency operation of a diesel generator and from the Palisades Nuclear Plant in Michigan for aging affect that were unmonitored.

The three page letter basically says the NRC has all the information it needs, but at
the time, Lochbaum said the NRC asked plant owners only one basic question: it they had buried cables for key systems that might age faster than expected – a good question but too narrow, too focused.

The question that would garner a more detailed response would have been: Are there underground cables or pipes in environments harsher than was assumed that is speeding up the aging process?

Arguments against Entergy’s license renewal application for continued operation of the two reactors has included one made by the NYS Attorney General about old pipes. The AG argues that Entergy does not provide an adequate Aging Management Plan for buried pipes, tanks and transfer canals that contain radioactive fluid. Those contentions are being considered in the re-licensing process.