Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2016
By Arianne Peterson
Entergy Corp. notified the State of New York February 5 that it had found “alarming levels” of radioactivity in three monitoring wells at its Indian Point Nuclear Facility near Buchanan, New York, 25 miles from the Bronx. One well’s radioactivity had increased by nearly 65,000 percent, and initial tritium* readings from the well water were as high as 8 million picocuries+ per liter—400 times the limit for drinking water set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Entergy is the New Orleans-based nuclear utility that operates the twin, 40-year-old reactors at Indian Point, supplying 25 percent of New York City’s electricity.
According to officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the leak was caused by a drain overflow as workers were transferring radioactive water. A sump pump that was supposed to filter the water into another treatment system was apparently out of service. While tritium was the predominant contaminant, the leak is also likely to contain strontium-90, cesium-137, cobalt-60, and nickel-63—heavier isotopes that move more slowly.
Environmental groups, including Riverkeeper and the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, cite the leak as one more reason to decommission the aging facility, which contains two operating and one permanently closed nuclear power reactors.
“Indian Point had seven different malfunctions since May of 2015… the next one could be a catastrophe,” said Paul Galley of Riverkeeper, a grass roots group dedicated to protecting the Hudson River from the Indian Point reactors next to it. The Hudson is used as a primary drinking water source for at least seven communities and a backup source for 9 million residents of New York City and Westchester County. The NRC and Entergy consider the facility’s periodic radioactive spills to be safe because they are diluted by the rest of the river water.
“The NRC says there is no safe level of tritium contamination,” Gallay said. “When tritium is released in concentrations as high as 400 times the standard for drinking water, it is not out of the realm of possibility that people recreating in the Hudson River will come into contact with that material, or consume fish that ingested some of this material. There is certainly a risk to the environment.”
Entergy holds a permit that allows it to regularly pour radioactive contaminants from Indian Point into groundwater, the Hudson River, and the air. In 2008, the company reported it had intentionally released 877 curies (877 trillion picocuries) of liquid radioactive effluent into the Hudson. A 2005 leak from a crack in its 400,000 gallon onsite waste storage pond prompted Entergy to dig dozens of test wells. According to a 2010 report from Beyond Nuclear, “the radioactive leaks under Indian Point have created at least two large underground radioactive ‘lakes’ containing concentrations of tritium, strontium-90 and likely other longer lived isotopes.”
“Tritium,” explained David Lochbaum, nuclear safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “is just the first item reported. It tends to be the leading edge of any spill since it is the lightest and most mobile of the radioactive contaminants. The other isotopes slow down as they go through the soil. That other stuff is on its way, however. Tritium just wins the race.”
The decades of leaks and safety violations at the site—as well as the fact that there is no effective evacuation plan to help protect the 20 million people living within 50 miles of the reactors in the event of a larger accident—have caused New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to urge federal officials not to renew the facility’s operating license. Indian Point’s 40-year licenses for its two operating reactors expired in 2013 and 2015 respectively. The NRC is still considering Entergy’s 2007 application for a 20-year renewal of each. Gov. Cuomo, who in December ordered an investigation into the facility and the risks it poses to the surrounding area, has also ordered an investigation into the recent leak, saying, “This failure continues to demonstrate that Indian Point cannot continue to operate in a manner that is protective of public health and the environment.”
Besides the age and condition of the 42- and 40-year-old reactors, the station’s three miles of inaccessible underground piping—which cannot be inspected and have leaked in the past—are a major cause for regulatory concern.
Susan Shapiro of the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition called on the NRC to penalize Entergy for exceeding its operating license and its state discharge permit. She said, “If you have a mom and pop gas station and they have an underground leak, they would be immediately shut down until the leak is plugged. In New York State, all groundwater has to be potable and contamination is not permitted. But Entergy is getting away with contaminating our groundwater just because they are under the auspices of a government agency that doesn’t feel as strongly about our water. For me, that is shocking.”
—Beyond Nuclear, “Leak First, Fix Later,” 2010; New York Daily News, Feb. 7 & 8; and Energy Matters, Feb. 12, 2016.
*Tritium is the radioactive form of hydrogen and is produced in great quantities inside nuclear reactors and inside waste fuel rods stored onsite in deep pools of cooling water.
+One picocurie (abbreviated as pCi) is one trillionth of a curie. A curie (abbreviated as Ci) is a large measure of radioactivity, defined as radioactive decay at a rate of 37 billion atomic disintegrations per second.