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by Shannon Gearhart
The revelation of failing bolts inside one of Indian Point’s two reactors means that the whole plant needs to be taken offline, deeply inspected and not restarted without much more solid proof of safety than we’ve had so far.
Built in 1973, Indian Point is one of the oldest, most troubled nuclear facilities in the US. Last month a special inspection of Indian Point 2 found more than a quarter of the 832 bolts holding up critical metal baffle plates inside its reactor core were deteriorated, faulty or missing.
This is a stunning discovery. The plates channel cooling water inside the reactor core to keep it from overheating. Without functioning bolts, the plates could separate and fail. Bolts or fragments of bolts lost in the core could block valves, control rods, or the flow of cooling water, triggering partial or full meltdown. Such a partial meltdown has occurred at the Fermi power reactor near Detroit, and at other nuclear plants, all younger than Indian Point is now.
We can’t risk a meltdown at Indian Point. It’s just 30 miles north of Manhattan, with 20 million people living in a 50 mile radius. Its reactor fuel pools are among the most intense concentrations of lethal radioactivity on the planet -- roughly triple that of Fukushima’s fuel pools. With a denser surrounding population and no feasible evacuation plan, the consequences of a meltdown or other serious incident at Indian Point could be much worse than Fukushima.
If Indian Point were a car, built in the 1970s, now beyond its designed lifespan and registration date, increasingly breaking down, with unstoppable fluid leaks, toxic emissions, failing bolts and metal fragments that could blow the engine, it wouldn’t pass inspection, and you wouldn’t drive it.
Yet Entergy continues to run Indian Point on expired operating licenses, though it spends more and more time in the shop. Since May 2015 it has had seven unplanned outages due to a cascade of failures --transformer fires, explosions with oils spills, electrical switch failures, and a pump failure that caused spikes in leakage of tritium and other radioactive isotopes into the groundwater and the Hudson. Each time, the public was told there was no danger and that the problem was fixed, whereupon the reactors were gamely restarted.
Not this time. We can’t risk another restart of Indian Point without a comprehensive inspection and safety assessment. It must account for all missing metal fragments inside the reactor core, and give a clean bill of health to all other critical components in the plant. When something as fundamental as the bolts holding the reactor core assembly fail, and routine inspections don’t detect it, we clearly need a new inspection regime to discover what else has failed – before the reactors restart.
That also goes for the Indian Point 3 reactor. It’s virtually identical to Indian Point 2 and its reactor core very likely has the same problems. Yet IP3 is running and not scheduled for inspection until 2019. That’s intolerable – it must be powered down and inspected now.
Governor Cuomo deserves credit for flagging Indian Point’s dangers, demanding inspections, opposing relicensing and calling for closure. A growing chorus is joining that call. But whether you’re part of it or not, it should be beyond dispute that both of its reactors must be shut down for inspection now, and not restarted until Entergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission prove, in a verifiable and publicly accountable way, that the numerous systems needed to prevent a nuclear disaster in New York are robust and safe. So far, they haven’t.
Shannon Gearhart, MD, MPH is the former president of Physician for Social Responsibility's New York chapter
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