In an article published today in lohud.com ("Indian Point gets fix list from NRC"), Greg Clary lists the following ongoing issues at the power plant:
• At Indian Point 2, hydrogen containment devices, which are supposed to be tested every other year, haven't been tested for five years.
• Fire protection equipment in locations that are not "seismically designed," or protected from a quake.
• Inspectors identified potential vulnerabilities associated with seismic events.
• At Indian Point 3, not enough firefighting equipment if severe events included both reactors simultaneously.
• In on-site availability of submersible pumps and sandbags needed at certain flood levels.
• Carbon-dioxide tanks used for firefighting are not seismically qualified.
Also covering the story was Tom Zeller, Jr., in yesterday’s Huffington Post. He said that the news of how ill-equipped our nuclear plants are to withstand natural disasters followed "two lengthy investigations published this week by ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity into the long-standing risk of fire at nuclear power plants.”
In the first of these, John Sullivan talks of how "routine" it has been for US power plants to waive fire rule violations and that plants can also request exemptions. The exemption Indian Point got in 2007 was, he believes, among the most controversial:
In 2007, the NRC granted an exemption to Indian Point, saying it was safe for certain cables to be protected with a fire barrier rated to last 24 minutes rather than the one hour required under NRC's fire rules.Sullivan also cites Entergy’s request for exemption two years later, a document that he says contains 33 instances of the plant’s failure to meet fire rules.
Of additional interest is the link Sullivan provides to Attorney General Schneiderman’s “Petition for Enforcement” (March 28, 2011), requesting that the
NRC TAKE ENFORCEMENT ACTION AGAINST ENTERGY NUCLEAR OPERATIONS . . . FOR VIOLATIONS OF NRC’s 1980 FIRE SAFETY REGULATIONS AT INDIAN POINT [units 1-3] AND TO COMPEL ACTUAL COMPLIANCE WITH SUCH REGULATIONS
The second investigative report Zeller cites is by Susan Q. Stranahan, who thinks the “more probable threat" at nuclear power plants is fire, about 10 of them a year at American nuclear plants. The NRC, she says,
has so routinely exempted utilities from what’s on the books to safeguard plants from fires that some companies no longer bother to request an exception. Even when safety flaws are identified, the NRC allows operators to voluntarily come up with their own solutions. And some reactors operate for years on temporary fixes. When blazes recur at the same plant, penalties tend to be minimal.Of greatest concern at Indian Point, according to Stranahan, "besides whether the plant can withstand an earthquake,” is fire protection and the natural gas line that runs through the site. Entergy’s 2008 assessment showing that the plant is secure and safe even if the pipelines fail is "not available to the public for independent review" (see her May 11th article "Could rupture of major pipeline ignite nuclear plant's control room?").
Stranahan reports that after examining documents and conducting interviews, iWatch included among its findings this:
The NRC has knowingly allowed utilities to rely on worthless fireproofing insulation. The issue, which first arose in 1989, hasn’t been resolved. After 17 years, the NRC finally ordered industry to deal with the problem — only to face resistance from industry. Result: The NRC granted more exemptions. Bottom line: Faulty insulation remains at many plants, including Indian Point.The last part of her long article deals with fireproofing and the Hemyc system at Indian Point.
After Browns Ferry, reactor owners were advised to protect their critical cable trays with fireproof insulation.After citing more problems with Hemyc, plus the NRC’s tests and the deadlines it set for change, the industry’s push back, and the NRC’s eventual rescinding of its rules for change, Stranahan describes the current situation at Indian Point in these words:
Appendix R rules require that these fire barriers or “wraps” withstand a one-hour blaze in areas with fire detection systems or sprinklers, or a three-hour fire in areas without those systems. Reactor owners commonly used products called Thermo-Lag and Hemyc.
. . .
When, in 1993, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) finally tested Hemyc for the NRC, the insulation didn’t even come close to meeting the one-hour rule. It failed in just 23 minutes.
In another test, performed by Sandia National Laboratory, it survived only 13 minutes.
For reasons that still are unclear, the NRC did not communicate the Hemyc test results to the 15 plants where it was in use, the NRC’s inspector general found in 2008.
Among the plants that continue to use Hemyc as a fire barrier is Indian Point. In June 2006, the plant’s owner, Entergy, notified the NRC that it had implemented “fire watch tours” in lieu of replacing the Hemyc. That was one of many operator manual actions instituted at the plant. Entergy maintains it is in compliance with its license, and the NRC concurs. Others disagree.
On March 18, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman formally asked the NRC to assess all public health and safety risks to the public posed by Indian Point as part of its relicensing review, including the reactors’ ability to withstand earthquakes, as well as the adequacy of the fire protection plan.
According to Schneiderman’s petition, 275 separate fire zones at the two reactors require operator manual actions if safety circuits are damaged by fire. In some instances, Schneiderman noted, multiple tasks might be required in each zone to safely avert a fire.
By Schneiderman’s count, Indian Point has been granted in excess of 100 exemptions. A spokesman for Entergy told reporters the number is about 30. According to the NRC’s official exemption database, meanwhile, Indian Point has received just six, although multiple exemptions may be included with each listing. When asked about the disparity in numbers, an NRC spokesman said its count was accurate.
Indian Point’s upcoming license renewal has also been under assault in a federal court for several years. On March 4, a federal judge dismissed a complaint filed against the NRC by several citizens’ groups, challenging the NRC’s exemptions to Appendix R. Although the judge rejected the petition, the challengers are expected to pursue the matter further.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has called Indian Point “a catastrophe waiting to happen,” has recently called on the NRC to re-examine the plant’s ability to withstand an earthquake. In the past he has raised concerns over vulnerability to terrorists as well as safety concerns at the plant due to age.
In response, Entergy has launched a media campaign. “All who work here have complete confidence in the safety of our plants,” is the message of one radio spot. “We continuously upgrade our systems, train constantly and build redundancies in all our operations to assure safety. Our families and friends live here, too. We would not be here if we didn't also believe that Indian Point provides clean, reliable, lower-cost power, safely.”