Sunday, May 22, 2011

Inexcusable Omissions at Indian Point

Indian Point nuclear power plant sits 40 miles north of the heart of New York City, and supplies a significant portion of the region's power. Yet, the plant lacks basic fire safety and security systems according to documentation obtained by New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman.
The aging plant 24 miles from the city is missing basic smoke-eating tools, even as it sits on an earthquake fault and has suffered two fires since 2007.

Such safety shortcuts, approved for years by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, face new scrutiny in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuke plant.

Indian Point's two active reactors are divided into 275 fire zones, of which 198 lack automatic fire suppression systems, according to records that plant owner Entergy gave the NRC in 2009.

That means 72% of the facility lacks things like sprinklers and automatic deluge water sprays.

One vulnerable hot spot is the spent-fuel pool at Indian Point 3, where radioactive and superheated fuel rods are kept cool. A spent-fuel pool triggered Japan's nuke accident.

Records also show:
There are no manual fire suppression systems such as hydrants or fire extinguishers in 111 fire zones - 40% of the plant.

Fire detection systems common to most major office buildings such as smoke, heat or flame detectors are unavailable in 173 zones - 63% of the plant.

The data is contained in a little-noticed March 28 petition from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to the NRC alleging that most of the plant's 275 fire zones violate minimum federal fire safety regulations.

"Indian Point's ongoing failure to comply with federal fire safety requirements is both reckless and unacceptable," he told The News.

The NRC approved the current status of fire safety in the 1980s, but in 2006 it told Entergy to justify in writing why it should keep the exemptions.
These kinds of basic fire safety and suppression systems have been mandated for years, but Entergy and the prior operators managed to convince the NRC (the federal nuclear watchdog) to grant exemptions to these rules. In some instances, the company claims that fire suppression requirements aren't necessary for some areas because they are concrete and not capable of burning.

While those areas shouldn't be able to burn, there is always the potential for emergencies that aren't anticipated, and having fire suppression systems and alarms available to detect such emergencies is a good idea.

Here's hoping that the NRC requires that Entergy impose these necessary safety upgrades with all due haste. While the likelihood of a major earthquake is quite low in the region, the power plant has suffered from several fires in recent years and notification systems for the surrounding region have also been found to be inadequate. The plant's safety and security systems should be updated as part of the recertification process and the company should be forced to assume the costs without passing the costs on to rate payers.

As we saw with Fukushima in Japan, the ability to protect the spent fuel pools and other critical areas from overheating is a major concern and the plant should be upgraded in accordance with lessons learned from that nuclear disaster.

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