Indian Point: U.S. nuke ‘most at risk’ from an earthquake

The long-troubled Indian Point nuclear power plant outside New York City sits on an active seismic zone and has the highest probability of core damage from an earthquake disaster of any nuclear plant in the country. (What are the odds? US nuke plants ranked by quake risk).

A 2010 report by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission – obtained by MSNBC earlier this year and published in the aftermath of the nuclear catastrophe in Japan – updates earlier studies on earthquake risk at nuclear plants. It shows that Indian Point’s Unit 1 reactor (there are two operating reactors on the site) is the U.S. plant most at risk to reactor core damage from an earthquake disaster.

Following the tsunami, earthquake, and station blackout that triggered three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, both federal regulators and Entergy Corporation, the plant’s corporate owner, declared that Indian Point was safe and not at risk from earthquake damage. The plant was designed to withstand impact from any earthquake that might occur in the region, according to Entergy.

But the new study again raises the issue of seismic risk at the plant. And while the NRC has ordered a review of earthquake safety issues at all U.S. plants, there is no timetable set for regulatory actions required in response to the review. In 2008, a study by scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory revealed that Indian Point sits at the intersection of two fault lines and stated that a Magnitude 7 earthquake in the region is possible.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called Indian Point “a catastrophe waiting to happen.” In response to the new study putting Indian Point as the top plant most as risk from an earthquake, he said, “This plant in this proximity to New York City was never a good risk. But this is new information we are going to pursue.”

New York is fighting Entergy’s application to relicense the 40-year-old plant. The state has filed motions to include seismic risk in the NRC’s review of the application, but the NRC has denied them and challenges are pending.

The NRC’s review of seismic risk issues has drawn criticism from the National Resource Defense Council. An NRDC report published in May, Nuclear Accident at Indian Point: Consequences and Costs, stated that the NRC “underestimates the danger of a damaging earthquake” at Indian Point.

The report said “the NRC’s attempts to revise seismic risks at U.S. reactors have suffered from two key flaws: either the scope or methods of the review were limited by scarce data, or the NRC showed deference to voluntary nuclear industry initiatives. When licensees volunteered to reassess earthquake risk, the NRC did not validate the results or even require licensees to report whether or not the studies were actually completed.”

Environmental watchdog organizations, which have filed motions challenging the relicensing of Indian Point, have sought – so far unsuccessfully – to obtain and review documentation that supports Entergy’s claim that the plant is designed to withstand damage from a Magnitude 7.0 earthquake.

“There is a design basis document for the plant that is not public information anymore,” said Marilyn Elie, of the Westchester Citizens Awareness Network (WESTCAN) and a member of the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC). She noted that Indian Point was built in the 1960s when the standards for the construction were based on “science that goes back to the fifties.”

Paul Gallay, executive director of Riverkeeper, said, “When this plant was built, you didn’t have the seismic analysis equipment that you have currently and they assessed the size of a maximum earthquake at being low, which means one to three magnitude on the Richter scale.”

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