Power play begins at Indian Point

Of all the people who showed up on Monday for the first day of hearings in the relicensing of the Indian Point Nuclear Facility, Mr. Godman Planet Earth stuck out. The elderly gentleman stood in front of the Tarrytown Doubletree Hotel for hours, holding a sign stating he had repeatedly dreamed a 6.8 earthquake struck the nuclear plant that is at the heart of an intense debate over New York’s energy future and just ten miles from his house.

Mr. Godman Planet Earth has a message for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which started public hearings this week on the relicensing of Westchester’s Indian Point Nuclear Facility. Photo: Maura R. O’Connor

Though he would not speak to reporters, Mr. Godman Planet Earth said in a written statement that he felt a responsibility to share his dreams with the public and estimated that in the past, they have been accurate predictors “somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of the time.”

Since 2007 when the owner of Indian Point, Entergy Nuclear Operations, applied to renew its operating licenses for the two nuclear reactors in Buchanan, New York, apocalyptic warnings on both sides of the debate over whether to keep the nuclear facility open have proliferated.

The initial 40-year operating licenses for the two Indian Point reactors are scheduled to expire on September 28, 2013 and December 12, 2015. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to determine when it will issue a final ruling on Entergy’s renewal application, which it will do based on the findings of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, created in 2007 to adjudicate relicensing of nuclear facilities.

Proponents of the plant and nuclear power warn that shutting down the facility will lead to an electricity scarcity and loss of jobs that will deal a dire blow to New Yorkers; environmentalists and opponents of relicensing warn of nuclear meltdowns in which the country and the world’s financial center would shut down, and 25 million residents in the area around New York City would be forced to flee.

For many opponents, Mr. Godman Planet Earth’s dreams aren’t so fantastical or strange. A 2008 study by Columbia University’s Earth Institute found that the nuclear facility sits on two fault lines. It’s possible an earthquake of a magnitude between 6.0 and 7.0 could occur in the area, a fact oft repeated by environmental and concerned citizens groups.

Even Governor Cuomo — an opponent to relicensing dating back to his time as attorney general of the state — has repeatedly voiced his concerns over earthquake risks as well as Indian Point’s vulnerability to terrorist threats and other hazhards.

“The suggestion is that of all the power plants across the country, that the Indian Point power plant is most susceptible to an earthquake because Reactor No. 3 is on a fault [line],” Cuomo said in March 2011 in response to a federal study on the possibility of earthquakes at Indian Point. “It should be closed. This plant in this proximity to the city was never a good risk.”

At Monday’s hearing called by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the start of several weeks of proceedings, apocalyptic visions and emotional debate were mostly subsumed by arcane and technical discussion of the finer point of matters like “flow accelerated corrosion” and the algorithms used to monitor pipe wall thinning, quickly lulling the audience into a daze and even putting a few representatives from state governments to sleep.

Indeed, to the layperson in nuclear science or regulatory law, the proceedings under the chandeliers of the hotel ballroom where a makeshift courtroom was established to accommodate three judges as well as representatives from Entergy, New York, Connecticut and environmental groups, could seem downright esoteric.

“For those of you who have not attended these hearings before, it’s a little complicated. It will sort of be like coming into Lost in the middle of season three,” warned Judge Lawrence G. McDade from the banquet table that had been converted to a bench.

In the coming weeks, Judge McDade and his colleagues will call on expert witnesses to give testimony on at least ten points of disagreement, classified as “contentions,” out of some 1,400 that Judge McDade said have been filed with the board to date, and then issue a ruling on the matters at a later, undetermined date.

Among the contentions are seven filed by the State of New York. They include challenges to the adequacy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s analysis of energy alternatives to Indian Point, impacts from spent fuel pool leaks, the impacts of license renewal on property values in Westchester County, and its analysis of the cost of human exposure to radioactivity in the case of an accident at the facility.

According to New York State Comptroller’s Office records, the New York Attorney General’s Office currently has some $1.68 million in contracts with consultants and nuclear power experts to support its case against relicensing. These contracts include more than $634,000 for National Legal Scholar Law Firm to provide legal expertise and services, and a $198,000 contract with one individual Richard T. Lahey, Jr. an international authority in “mulitiphase flow and heat transfer technology” for his consultation and testimony during hearings.

In the last five years, dozens of witnesses have been called by both Entergy and the 16 entities including the City of New York that have filed requests for hearings or petitions in the relicensing process, generating thousands of pages of testimony and legal filings, all available for public viewing online. Despite the length and complexity of the proceedings, however, Judge McDade said that at this point “we kind of know everyone, this has gone on for so long.”

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