Indian Point and Nuclear Energy

March 13, 2011

Every time something happens in another place that involves nuclear energy, we find advocates and politicians waving their flags:  Let’s close Indian Point!  It’s dangerous!  It’s a security risk!

Let me be clear: I’m not a fan of nuclear electric generation.  If there were no Indian Point facility today, and a proposal was on the table to create a nuclear power generation facility along the Hudson, I would be 100% opposed.

However, the Indian Point facility is real, it is part of our landscape, and we need to find rational ways to deal with it.

Indian Point houses 3 nuclear reactors:  Indian Point 1, Indian Point 2, and Indian Point 3.

Indian Point One (officially known as ‘Indian Point Unit 1’) operated from 1962 to 1974.  The plant was shut down because the emergency core cooling system did not meet regulatory requirements.  That plant has been partially “decommissioned.”

The current operating license for Indian Point 2 expires in 2013; the IP 3 license expires in 2015.  Applications for 20-year renewal of both were submitted in 2007, and are winding their way through the NRC process.  Meanwhile, the two reactors currently provide about 2,100 MW of electricity to the New York metro region

What does this imply?

On a typical day, the combined output of the 2 operating IP reactors supplies about 30 percent of the electric demand in New York City and the surrounding region. With no identified alternatives to replace this power, closure of these reactors would result in an economic catastrophe for our region.

While closing the reactors is a great “sound bite” (and apparently has helped some politicians raise huge sums from some contributors), it seems that many experts fear the on-site stored spent fuel rods more than the reactor itself.

Apparently, the process used in a nuclear reactor to heat water to generate steam which then generates electricity is not very efficient.  By some accounts, only about 10 percent of the rods’ fuel is used up during the process, leaving potential energy (and nuclear waste) sitting on-site in storage canisters for eternity.

After Indian Point One was shut down in 1974, it was slowly but only partially “decommissioned.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said in prior reports that Indian Point One has had a long history of leakage, and has the dubious distinction as the only nuclear site in the country that had leaked Strontium-90, a highly radioactive isotope.

Fact is, operating or not, nuclear waste will remain onsite at Indian Point until the federal government builds the Yucca Mountain’s repository in Nevada or comes up with some sort of an alternative. 

In France and other countries, nuclear waste is being recycled in reprocessing facilities, not without some controversy.  According to the NRC, “There is no commercial reprocessing of nuclear power fuel in the United States at present; almost all existing commercial high-level waste is in the form of unreprocessed spent fuel.”

As stated earlier, I’m not a fan of nuclear reactors to generate electricity, but until we come up with a better solution, I’d like to see all of our attention focused on remediating the on-site storage issue.

A nuclear waste reprocessing demonstration project in West Valley, NY which operated between 1966-72 is commonly recognized as a disaster. 

That doesn’t mean we couldn’t do a better job today.  Before we talk about closure, let’s find a viable way to move the waste, reprocess it, and find permanent storage for the residue.

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