A transformer fire at New York’s Indian Point nuclear power plant on Saturday forced the shutdown of one of the site’s two reactors, and it remains offline at the time of this writing. As one of 8.4 million New Yorkers who live about 34 miles from the reactor, I’ve been thinking about the incident for several days. I’m still not sure how to react.
Entergy, the plant’s operator, played down the incident. While Governor Cuomo insisted on Sunday that “there’s no doubt oil was discharged into the Hudson River,” Entergy denies that any oil reached the sensitive waterway. More importantly, the company emphasized, the plant’s failsafe mechanisms worked. A second transformer soon restored power after the first failed. If that transformer hadn’t remedied things, a diesel generator was available to provide the power necessary for the reactor’s safety systems.
Transformer failures happen all the time at nuclear plants. According to Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are more than two transformer fires per year at U.S. nuclear plants. Indian Point had another fire only eight years ago. Maybe it’s reassuring that Saturday’s incident was a fairly routine occurrence and that the backup systems worked.
Or maybe it’s not reassuring at all. Maybe it’s terrifying to learn that fires and power losses are routine at a facility with the capacity to ruin the lives of millions of people. Before Entergy lulls you into a nuclear-powered sense of comfort, remember that a loss of power—including the failure of diesel power backup—led to the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. True, an earthquake, rather than a mere transformer fire, set that accident in motion, but something similar could happen at Indian Point. The facility is within a few miles of two fault lines, and in 2014 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission named Indian Point as one of ten U.S. plants most in need of reassessment for earthquake risk.
A serious accident at Indian Point would lead to a disaster of historic proportions. In 2011, NRDC (disclosure) analyzed the potential consequences of a Fukushima-scale meltdown at Indian Point. According to the report, more than five million New Yorkers would have to evacuate their homes, depending on the path of the plume, and six million people would require iodine treatments for radiation exposure. A larger accident, closer to the scale of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, would increase New Yorkers’ risk of premature death from cancer by 7 percent. It would also render the city uninhabitable for generations.
Could New York City be evacuated in an orderly fashion after a nuclear accident? Nobody knows. Back in 1979, New York magazine posed this question to the mayor’s office. The response would be comical, if it weren’t so scary: “I think in three to four days, by commandeering everything—cars, buses, trucks, even walking—we could get out of New York. We could walk a lot of people out of this city and walk away from the problem,” said Paul Trautman, deputy director in Mayor Ed Koch’s office of operations.
Inadequate regulations allow for this bizarre lack of preparation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires plant operators to develop evacuation plans only for a 10-mile radius around the plant, which perhaps explains why Indian Point wasn’t built even closer to the city.
The state could easily shut down Indian Point without jeopardizing the region’s power supply. New York state and its most populous city currently have more electricity than they need. If the two reactors stopped working today, there would be enough electricity to carry the state through 2020 without building any more power plants. Through simple energy-efficiency measures, such as altering business codes with energy use in mind and improving standards for appliances, the state could reduce energy demand by 1.5 percent per year. (Remember, efficiency means cutting waste out of the system. It would not require New Yorkers to lower their standard of living.) That would buy the state even more time to replace Indian Point’s output. With several years available to plan, renewable energy could fill in any gaps, and projects totaling three times the output of Indian Point have already been proposed.
Indian Point is in trouble already. The license for one reactor expired in 2013, and the second’s license will expire later this year. Since Indian Point is one of the few profitable reactors in states with free-market pricing, Entergy is keen to renew, but that’s tied up in litigation. (The NRC allows nuclear plants to operate with expired licenses to operate while the renewal is being litigated.) Environmental groups, with the support of New York State, Connecticut, and Vermont, are urging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to deny Entergy’s application. At the same time, Entergy is fighting claims in New York state court that the plant’s water intake and discharge systems are destroying the Hudson River ecosystem.
Shutting down a nuclear plant is a long and slow process, but it’s doable. Entergy would most likely elect the SAFSTOR method, which the company is employing at the decommissioned Vermont Yankee plant. Under SAFSTOR, the operator allows the plant to cool off with little human involvement for a few decades before attempting to disassemble the pieces and decontaminate the land. Indian Point would still linger just outside of New York City until the middle of this century, but the risks would diminish quickly.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have to make a big decision very soon. New Yorkers don’t get a vote, but their safety ought to be the agency’s first concern, and even contained accidents like Saturday’s fire shouldn’t be minimized. Keeping a redundant nuclear reactor so close to the country’s largest city, when far better options exist, seems like a dubious choice.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.