The environment would remain safe if Indian Point nuclear plant operates for another 20 years. That’s the opinion of a team of scientists and engineers on the staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Operating licenses for the two reactors at Indian Point nuclear plant in New York will expire in 2013 and 2015. Entergy, the plant’s owner has applied for a license renewal to allow the plants to operate for an additional 20 years. A major portion of the application is this detailed study of the environmental impact of allowing the plant to continue operation.
This analysis has been underway for almost two years, and included analyzing public comments and issues raised by New York State and groups opposed to the plant. On December 3, 2010 the staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission released the results of their assessment which concluded there are “no environmental impacts that would preclude license renewal for an additional 20 years of operation.”
License renewals are routine. In fact, last week the NRC issued the 60th such license renewal for a US commercial nuclear plant. That one went to the Cooper Nuclear Station in Nebraska. Indian Point’s environmental impact analysis is probably the most thorough ever done by the NRC. It usually takes between 6 and 12 months for the NRC to collect public comments and conduct their environmental review. In contract, Indian Point’s review took two years to complete. It is a monstrous document; the report is more than 2,200 pages long compared to an average of 480 pages at other plants. It’s worth noting that the plant’s owner pays the Federal Government more than $200 for every hour the NRC staff spent on the environmental analysis.
So what’s unique about Indian Point that might require such an extensive review of the environmental impact? In short, it has nothing to do with the natural environment, and everything to do with the political environment in which the plant operates. There is a very high profile and well funded anti-nuclear campaign being waged against Indian Point by organizations like Riverkeeper, the Radiation and Public Health Project, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. These organizations and others like them have taken advantage of the transparency of the license renewal process to intervene at every opportunity in an effort to slow or block the process. On one hand they claim nuclear plants are too expensive, yet they work hard to further raise the costs. For example, they claimed the plant is in violation of the US Endangered Species Act because the endangered shortnose sturgeon eggs and hatchlings are entrained in the plant’s cooling system. However, the shortnose sturgeon population in the Hudson has sky rocketed over the last 30 years while Indian Point has been running, proving the plant’s operation has little effect on sturgeon in the Hudson. The NRC staff agrees; in this report the NRC concluded that impacts to the endangered shortnose sturgeon are “likely to be SMALL.”
The NRC’s engineers and scientists considered 92 environmental issues in it’s assessment. Each was rated as having either SMALL, MODERATE, or LARGE impact on the environment. In this rating system SMALL means “the Environmental effects are not detectable or are so minor that they will neither destabilize nor noticeably alter any important attribute of the [environmental] resource.” Of the 92 environmental issues reviewed, 89 were shown to have SMALL impact. Two of three remaining issues had MODERATE impact: impingement and entrainment of aquatic organisms. The final issue is related to the potential that the plant’s warm water discharge might overheat the Hudson River. In this case, up to date information is not yet available for the NRC to review. Thus, while they said the impact might range from SMALL to LARGE, the NRC staff essentially took a position that river heating is unlikely to create such adverse impact that it would warrant denying the license renewal application.
There have been prior studies on the thermal impact of the plant on the river. These earlier analysis demonstrated warm water from the plant does not harm the river ecosystem. Earlier this year New York State asked Entergy to update the thermal impact analysis with new data. It’s likely the new report will have a similar outcome because conditions have changed very little. Also, the Lovett plant, which was a large coal fired power plant that was directly across the river from Indian Point, was decommissioned in 2007. In the past that plant’s thermal discharge mixed with Indian Point’s in the river and provided a larger combined effect. Today the thermal effect from Indian Point alone is much less than the combined impact from Indian Point and Lovett.
The environmental impact statement from the NRC is not the final legal hurdle that Indian Point must pass to receive a license renewal. Under present law the NRC can not issue a license renewal until the plant obtains a Certificate of Water Quality from New York State. In this regard, there’s an ongoing legal battle between the plant and New York State over the best way to reduce impingement and entrainment. The state wants the plant to install massive and expensive cooling towers, while Entergy has proposed much less costly wedge wire screens. If justice prevails, then Indian Point’s position will win because wedge wire screens are in use at many power plants around the country, including the Bowline Station, a fossil fueled power plant just five miles downstream from Indian Point.
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