It has been a record year for the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant 25 miles north of New York City on the banks of the Hudson River. Run by Louisiana-based operator Entergy, the Westchester plant has been a longstanding thorn in the sides of environmentalists and the State. This year, Indian Point has experienced more accidents and temporary shutdowns than it has in almost six years.

Indian Point’s significance is hard to discount. The plant supplies roughly a quarter of New York City’s electricity without emitting any greenhouse gases. But there is a disconcerting lack of consensus regarding the physical safety of the aging plant.

In May, a transformer explosion at Indian Point accidentally led to an inch of flooding in reactor #3’s switchgear room, located in the basement of the reactor’s control building. According to a nuclear safety expert interviewed for this story, five or more inches of water in the switchgear room would disable the electrical system which guarantees that the reactor’s nuclear core remains safely cool.

And if the cooling system’s 8 hours of back-up battery power ran out after the electrical system failed, this would help set the stage for a core meltdown.

Indian Point spokesman Jerry Nappi told us flatly that the electrical equipment in the switchgear room of reactor #3 was never at risk from the inch of flooding after the May 9th fire. But, he noted, “we have taken aggressive steps to ensure it does not occur again.”

Nonetheless, Governor Cuomo renewed his call to permanently shut down the plant. And the benefits the plant provides continue to be weighed against the arguably massive peril it poses both to the environment as well as to the safety of the metro region.

Describing the plant as “inherently problematic” after the transformer fire, Cuomo stated that “you do not have a nuclear plant in as dense a populated area anywhere else on the globe—it’s literally about 20 miles from New York City.”

cuomo indian point
Governor Cuomo speaks to reporters near the main entrance of Indian Point on May 9th after a transformer failed and caused a fire at reactor unit 3. The fire was extinguished and the unit shut down automatically according to the plant’s operator, Entergy. Credit: Associated Press/Craig Ruttle

“If something goes wrong at Indian Point, it goes seriously wrong and it affects a lot of people, so I’m very, very careful when it comes to Indian Point,” the Governor added.

A significant source of power (and jobs)

Indian Point is a key contributor to New York State’s energy requirements. In 2014, the plant’s two reactors produced 12% of the total electricity generated in New York, according to the New York Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s transmission network and wholesale electricity markets.

Owing to their low fuel costs, these reactors run at full capacity through the year, generating more than 2000 MW during the day — enough to power about two million homes.

[As a point of reference, the average amount of electricity used in New York State typically ranges between 17,000 to 19,000 MW in a one hour period. “Peak” usage loads, during heat waves and cold snaps, are significantly higher, ranging from about 29,000 to as much as 35,000 MW over the course of an hour. New York City accounted for roughly a third of the state’s energy usage in 2014.]

For the state to meet power reliability requirements, “replacement resources have to be in place prior to a closure of the Indian Point Energy Center,” said NYISO spokesperson, Ken Klapp. A NYISO report from July this year estimates that, if the plant were to close, at least 500 MW of additional power would have to be produced just to provide adequate energy to southeast New York.

By Entergy’s own estimates, the plant provides about 25% of the electricity supplied to New York City and Westchester County. According to company spokesperson Patricia Kakridas, the plant employs about 1,000 workers, who account for more than $140 million in annual payroll, and it supports more than 9,000 additional jobs across the state. Overall, Indian Point generates $1.6 billion for the state economy, pays another $340 million in local, state and federal taxes and contributes over $1 million in annual charitable contributions.

Nuclear power: a key part of the state’s energy mix

Nuclear power will play an important role in New York for the foreseeable future. In addition to Indian Point, New York has three other nuclear power plants, all located in the western part of the state. Almost a third of the electricity generated in New York State in 2014 came from nuclear power.

At the same time, New York’s energy mix is shifting. The use of coal and oil for power generation continues to decline, and the use of renewables -especially wind and solar- is growing. But so is the state’s use of natural gas, much to the consternation of many environmentalists.

Natural gas, while not renewable, is arguably “cleaner” than coal and relatively affordable. Gas’ role in power generation has increased significantly in the last 15 years. Last year, gas/oil and gas powered plants supplied 41% of the state’s electricity.

Interestingly, the Cuomo administration’s recently released 2015 Energy Plan makes barely any mention of nuclear energy. The Governor, who lives a half-hour from Indian Point, has been a staunch opponent of the plant. Cuomo’s broad vision document lays emphasis on “clean, affordable and renewable” sources of energy, and increased efficiency in transmission and distribution.

“A closer call than anybody would have liked.”

Citizens groups, elected officials and others have raised a wide range of safety concerns about Indian Point over the years. But it is the inch of flooding in reactor unit 3’s switchgear room after May’s transformer explosion that is particularly worrying -and frustrating- to nuclear safety specialist David Lochbaum.

Lochbaum directs a nuclear safety program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and is about to release a white paper on May’s explosion and flooding. It was “a closer call than anybody would have liked,” he observed.

Lochbaum said that the transformer explosion triggered the release of water from emergency valves. But once released, the water did not drain properly because of clogged floor drains.

Layout of Indian Point Energy Center. Source: Power Authority of the State of New York Preliminary Safety Analysis Report, April 26, 1967

“It keeps being a problem,” Lochbaum added. The plant’s switchgear rooms are vulnerable to flooding from various sources- they house both fire protection and cooling water pipes. Hurricane Irene caused flooding in one of reactor unit 2’s switchgear rooms, which was exacerbated by a clogged drain.

Lochbaum, who worked in the industry for 17 years and trained safety inspectors as a Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff member, points out that flooding in the switchgear rooms at the Daiichi Plant in Fukushima, Japan is what ultimately led to the failure of the plant’s electrical system, the core meltdown of the plant’s three reactors, and a catastrophic radiation release in 2011.

“They [Entergy] keep finding that the floor drains are clogged and partially blocked and not draining as well as they should. They keep identifying ways to better manage that flooding hazard but nothing ever seems to get fixed,” Lochbaum said.

Indian Point spokesman Jerry Nappi challenged Lochbaum’s assertion that the condition of the drains poses a serious threat. He stated that an engineering analysis conducted by Entergy showed that the “drains inside the building housing electrical equipment remove water [released by the sprinkler systems] at a rate quick enough to ensure water will never rise to a level that would impact the electrical equipment. This is the case now as well as the case during the May transformer fire.”

The accident in May led to a visit from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection team. NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci said that Entergy was taking “appropriate interim and long term actions,” including inspections and clearing drains, to address the drainage problem. The NRC will continue to follow the issue, she said.

Sprinklers are one thing, but what if the switchgear rooms flooded more rapidly, such as in the event of a hurricane?

Screnci said that in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC initiated a process in which every nuclear power plant in the country reevaluated its risk from flooding. The NRC is working with plants to determine whether they are properly protected, she said. Indian Point is in the middle of this process.

David Lochbaum is not satisfied with the pace of action at Indian Point. The NRC has documented flooding issues at the plant over several years, he said. “The best reason for the failure to address this problem is that they keep having flooding problems about every two years yet they [the problems] don’t lead to dire consequences,” he observed.

In its 2007 re-licensing application, Entergy even considered installing a flood alarm system for the switchgear rooms in both of Indian Point’s reactors, which would alert personnel immediately if there was a problem. This would be a huge step forward, said Lochbaum.

“There’s clearly a hazard,” he stated. Elevating the electrical equipment would be very expensive, Lochbaum explained, and complicated by the fact that the equipment must also be secured against potential earthquakes. “The best way to manage it is to make sure that room doesn’t flood to more than five inches.”

Nappi said that Entergy is still considering installing a flood alarm system, which admittedly could not fully protect against an electrical system failure, but would lower the risk of such an incident. The total cost would be roughly $4 million, said Lochbaum, which he argues is pennies per each area resident who might be affected by a core meltdown.

Assessing the risk posed by Indian Point

A 2011 report, commissioned by Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, attempted to gauge the impact of such a meltdown. It estimated that 5.6 million metro area residents would need to be evacuated or sheltered if just one of Indian Point’s reactors had a core meltdown similar in scale to what occurred in Fukushima.

The resulting radioactive plume, the report said, would put area residents at greater risk of cancer and genetic damage, and could contaminate a swathe of land from Northern Westchester to the George Washington Bridge to uninhabitable levels.

Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, has been actively involved in challenging Entergy’s application for renewing its operating licenses. The plant has two operating reactors- unit 2 and unit 3. The license for unit 2 expired in 2013 and unit 3’s license is due to expire in December.

Unit 3 has experienced four unplanned shutdowns so far this year, which is not typical, said Jerry Nappi. Overall reliability at both units has increased significantly over time, he said. Unit 2 has now been online for 568 continuous days.

Nappi maintained that the shutdowns should not be seen as safety issues or accidents. They were caused by various factors, such as equipment or grid connection problems, and are not due to the age of the plant, he stressed. During each shutdown, “equipment operated as designed and control room operators responded as expected,” Nappi added.

Other issues, including May’s transformer explosion (which also caused an oil leak into the Hudson), as well as a breaker failure in June, and spent fuel pools which are near capacity, are more clearly problematic. They all “add up to an unacceptable risk of the biggest disaster that the New York metro area could ever see,” argued Riverkeeper president Paul Gallay.

Is there a broader explanation for the unplanned shutdowns and other recent problems at Indian Point? “The most common thread…seems to be aging,” David Lochbaum observed.

There is a troubling gulf at times between the concerns raised by watchdog groups and numerous elected officials, and the stance of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission- the agency tasked with regulating the nuclear power industry. The NRC has conducted over 33,000 hours of inspections and reviews in the last eight years at Indian Point and deemed it safe for operation. The agency has given the plant its highest safety rating for the last five years.

Gallay cited the various fire safety exemptions granted by the NRC to the plant. (“They have fire safety exemptions that you and I couldn’t get for our home,” he said.)

These exemptions are not plant-wide; rather they apply to specific rooms and areas. Some are granted if the plant operator agrees to find workaround solutions to an issue such as assigning extra manpower in case of a fire. In one instance, despite a requirement that its power cables must be insulated to withstand fire for an hour, Indian Point received an exemption permitting cables that are only insulated against fire for 24 minutes. These exemptions recently became the basis for legal action against the plant.

However, NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan said such exemptions are not uncommon. “Almost every plant in the country has received some or the other exemption,” he said.

New York State Assembly member Richard Brodsky has appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to force Indian Point to shutdown or overhaul its safety standards. A group of New York City Council members lent their support to the case last month.

The plant is also at risk from earthquakes. In 2010, the NRC modeled the chances of catastrophic failure due to a seismic event and one of Indian Point’s two reactors, unit 3, was found to be at highest risk in the country compared to any other nuclear plant. Unit 3 has a 1 in 10,000 chance each year of core damage from an earthquake.

The NRC’s model takes two main factors into consideration: the chance of a serious quake, and the strength of design of the plant. David Lochbaum said he believed that Entergy is gradually working to address the earthquake hazard at the plant.

Like the NRC, Entergy insists that the plant is fundamentally secure. “Indian Point is safe and we have a proven commitment to make investments to assure safety,” said spokesperson Patricia Kakridas. According to her, the company has invested more than $1 billion over the last decade on security and safety.

Environmental impact that cuts both ways

Besides safety concerns, Indian Point has a direct environmental impact. The plant draws around 2.4 billion gallons of water from the Hudson River each day to cool its reactors and discharges it at a slightly higher temperature (approximately 8 degrees Fahrenheit according to Riverkeeper). This kills roughly a billion fish larvae and small fish each year and environmentalists have been arguing for temporary shutdowns of the plant to allow local fish populations to breed.

Indian Point’s impact on the Hudson is currently being reviewed in a state hearing administered by judges from the Department of Environmental Conservation.

But there is another way to look at the plant’s environmental impact. “Indian Point plays an important role in New York State’s ability to meet its ambitious environmental goals,” said Entergy spokeswoman Patricia Kakridas, referring to the fact that the plant does not emit any greenhouse gases. Both New York State and City plan to slash carbon emissions 80% by 2050.

Kakridas cited a 2011 study commissioned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection which found that carbon emissions in the state would rise as much as 15% if Indian Point went offline because the cheapest replacement option would be gas-fired power plants. The study also modelled a much more expensive low-carbon replacement option for the plant, which would include a new direct transmission line into New York City and an offshore wind farm in Brooklyn.

What if there was no Indian Point?

There is ongoing debate about how -and when- the energy supplied by Indian Point could be replaced, and what the true impact on consumers would be.

The state’s Independent System Operator has a matrix of power sources which it draws upon every day- based on availability and price. The greatest proportion -over half- of available capacity comes from gas and oil powered plants. At least in the immediate, those plants would most likely be used more if Indian Point were to close.

The Ravenswood Generating Station, a 2,480 MW power plant in Long Island City, Queens. The plant uses natural gas, fuel oil and kerosene to power its boilers. Credit: RSGUSKIND

Indeed, the 2011 analysis conducted for the City found that residents would likely experience significant cost increases, more air pollution and less fundamental reliability in the event of a closure.

Power reliability is not something New Yorkers usually have to think about. Indian Point spokesman Jerry Nappi maintained that nuclear power’s capability to continuously generate electricity “exceed[s] by far those of any other source of power generation.”

New York’s electrical grid would face shortages during peak load conditions if Indian Point closed today- 500 more MW are needed for southeast New York alone, says NYISO. Their analysis takes a contingency plan into account which would create three transmission projects specifically for southeast New York and goes into effect in summer 2016.

New York’s electrical grid would face shortages during peak load conditions if Indian Point closed today- 500 more MW are needed for southeast New York alone, says NYISO. Their analysis takes a contingency plan into account which would create three transmission projects specifically for southeast New York and goes into effect in summer 2016.

“This deficiency would grow with peak load growth over time,” NYISO spokesman Ken Klapp told us.

Renewable sources of energy that are coming on-line now will help, Klapp stated, but “would not be enough to make up the shortfall.” Energy efficiency and better load management could potentially absorb about 125 MW of the shortfall created by Indian Point’s closure, Klapp said.

But conditions are constantly changing. The Cuomo administration is in the midst of restructuring how New York’s energy market functions, a process which is partially aimed at greatly increasing the use of renewables.

Klapp also noted that a new combined cycle (gas and steam) 650-700 MW power plant is to be constructed in Wawayanda, NY. NYISO is examining how much of an impact the plant could have on southeast New York’s power needs. It is expected to be operational by 2018.

And other research may show a clearer path away from Indian Point.

A study commissioned by the NRDC and Riverkeeper in 2011 also examined energy alternatives to Indian Point, such as greater energy efficiency, expanded renewable sources like solar and wind, new transmission lines and upgraded existing power plants. It reported that the extra cost to consumers -if Indian Point were closed- would be negligible, between $1 and $5 per month.

The London Array. Its 175 wind turbines power nearly half a million UK homes. A similar project -almost 200 3.6 MW turbines- has been proposed for a site 13 miles off the coast of the Rockaways. Wind power is growing in New York State.

That study -contrary to the report commissioned by the City- found that New York State has ample reserves to meet any downfall in energy supply from a closure of Indian Point, noted Paul Gallay. He said electricity costs would remain stable and even go down as it would force increased conservation and efficiency measures to be put in place.

“The sooner we move from a 40-year-old aging, unsafe nuclear plant 30 miles from downtown Manhattan, to safer, more sustainable sources of energy, the safer and more better off we’ll be,” Gallay argued.

And on this point, Gallay has the support of the Governor.

A long -and uncertain- relicensing process

Entergy began the process to renew their licenses on both reactors back in April 2007. But that process has since been opposed and delayed at almost every turn.

Currently, the application is going through hearings where stakeholders who have filed contentions against the renewal of Entergy’s licenses will be able to testify. The next hearing is in November and the process will “certainly go into next year,” said NRC’s Sheehan. “We don’t have any definite timeframe for it to be completed,” he added, emphasizing that Indian Point has seen a significantly longer relicensing process than any other nuclear power plant in the country.

NRC staff issued two different reports on Indian Point as part of the relicensing process: a safety review in 2009 and an environmental review in 2010. But the NRC continues to file supplements to these reports, with new information, each year.

With each supplementary report, parties opposed to the renewal are allowed to submit new contentions. A bulk of the contentions were filed early in the renewal process with most coming from the Cuomo administration. Only after the hearings are concluded can the five-member NRC give its final decision.

Complicating Entergy’s efforts further are two permits they have to obtain from the State government – a water discharge permit and a Certification of Consistency with the Coastal Zone Management Plan for the Hudson River. The second is currently being litigated in court after a judge ruled that the plant was exempt from the Coastal Zone Management Plan and the State appealed the decision.

Another case went against Entergy in July when an appellate court upheld the State’s efforts in 2012 to expand protected wildlife habitat areas to parts of the Hudson that run along Indian Point.

A speedy conclusion is unlikely. Because Entergy submitted its relicensing applications before the licenses for both reactors expire, federal law allows them to continue to operate the plant until the NRC reaches a final decision.

As this process grinds on, it remains to be seen how far and how quickly the Governor can take the state’s energy supply in a different direction, and create viable alternatives. Federal approval process notwithstanding, Indian Point may very well fall prey to his greener, cleaner, safer vision for New York.




  • karen orlando

    The only thing that surprises me is that the environmental groups listed haven’t yet attempted to say nuclear is worse than coal for climate which as you know is one of the things said about natural gas in recent years. Natural gas isn’t just cleaner than coal, it also has benefits for climate and air quality emissions when compared to oil as well. Not that climate and reducing carbon dioxide emissions have actually been at the forefront of environmental discussions in ny state for the last 6 or 7 years as instead the focus was on preventing natural gas production in the state even as infrastructure to deliver more natural gas to the area was built.

    • Green_Nuke

      My personal concern with methane for electricity production is primarily at the point of origin, not the point of consumption.

      Yes, methane is by far the cleanest of the fossil fuels to burn. But the wells through which we extract it from the ground are known to release large amounts of it directly into the atmosphere. (Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.) And don’t even get me started on the environmental effects of fracking…

      This might explain New Yorkers’ seeming resistance to methane EXTRACTION, but not to methane CONSUMPTION.

  • atomikrabbit

    The authors have made a concerted effort to present both sides of this debate – unfortunately, the lay public, without a detailed technical background in these complex issues, is often forced to pick sides based on nothing better than gut instincts.

    Without attempting a point-by-point rebuttal of some of the more egregious misstatements made by opponents, I will only offer up this recent reactor accident consequences analysis by the USNRC, which most people, even journalists, have never seen:

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