Japan Quake Focuses Attention On Indian Point
On March 11, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan struck the island nation’s northeastern coast. A tsunami (seismic seawave) followed almost immediately, devastating miles of coastline and causing damage as far as six miles inland. In the immediate wake of the 8.9-magnitude temblor 30-foot walls of water swept across rice fields and engulfed entire towns. Houses were torn off foundations and dragged across highways and cars and boats scattered over a landscape denuded of plant life like toys across a playroom floor. About 12,600 people are believed to have been killed and more than 14,700 were listed as missing at last count.
The catastrophe paled in the face of what soon became established as a far larger threat: damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Since the quake and tsunami, workers have fought to stabilize the reactors at the facility, damage to which has resulted in radiation leaks into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean. Some of that radiation, albeit much weakened by its long journey, has reached the East Coast of the United States, but is expected to have little or no effect.
The catastrophe in Japan has other nations, including the United States, reviewing the status and condition of the nuclear power plants within their borders. Here in Western Queens, most of our concerns are focused on the Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC), familiarly known and referred to simply as Indian Point, a three-unit nuclear power plant station on the east bank of the Hudson River, 38 miles north of New York City. Indian Point is owned and operated by Entergy Nuclear Northeast, a subsidiary of Entergy Corporation, and includes the permanently shut down Indian Point Unit 1 reactor and two operating Westinghouse pressurized water reactors, Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3, built in 1974 and 1976, and bought by Entergy from, respectively, Consolidated Edison and the New York Power Authority. Some 1,683 people work at Indian Point, which provides up to 30 percent of the electricity used by New York City and Westchester County.
Indian Point is protected by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, including a National Guard base within a mile of the facility, as well as by private offsite security forces. In the wake of the Japan earthquake, attention has focused more on the safety of the plant itself. Indian Point Unit 1, built by Consolidated Edison, started operations on Sept. 16, 1962.
The Unit 1 reactor was shut down on Oct. 31, 1974 because the emergency core cooling system did not meet regulatory requirements. Despite incidences occurring in 1981, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2010 of leaks, intentional venting of mildly radioactive steam, a transformer explosion and incurring a fine for failing to meet a deadline for a new emergency siren plan for the plant’s 150 sirens, meant to alert residents within 10 miles of a plant emergency at Units 2 and 3, on Mar. 10, 2009 federal regulators awarded Indian Point its fifth consecutive top safety rating for annual operations. According to a Hudson County newspaper, the plant had shown substantial improvement in its safety culture in the two years prior to 2009. We have to admit we find this somewhat heartening.
In light of the Japan earthquake, rather than human error, the possibility of earthquake damage at Indian Point is uppermost in the minds of many of the plant’s neighbors. Researchers from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have located a previously unknown active seismic zone running from Stamford, Connecticut, to the Hudson Valley town of Peekskill, New York called the Ramapo Fault that passes less than a mile north of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Indian Point was built to withstand an earthquake of 6.1 on the Richter scale, according to a company spokesman and Entergy executives have also noted that Indian Point had been designed to withstand an earthquake much stronger than any on record in the region, though not one as powerful as the nearly 9.0 Japan quake.
As well as the Japan earthquake and its aftermath, other incidents in recent memory have aroused concern about the safety of nuclear energy. The Mar. 28, 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (TMI) in the Susquehanna River, south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is considered the most significant accident in the history of United States commercial nuclear energy, even though the accident resulted in no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of nearby communities. The Chernobyl disaster, a nuclear accident that occurred on Apr. 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian SSR, now Ukraine, is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and is the only one classified as a level seven event on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
No place on the planet is free of the possibility of an earthquake occurrence, although the probability is more likely in countries such as Japan and the western coast of North, Central and South America, the circumpacific ring of fire, as geologists call it. Nor is there any possibility of living without electricity generated by nuclear power. That genie got out of the bottle nearly 70 years ago and will never be put back in. Nuclear power is here to stay and the forces of nature are always with us. Given these inescapable facts, and in light of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Japan, the only course of action remaining is to design and build nuclear power plants to be as safe and efficient as possible and ensure that they are maintained and inspected rigorously and thoroughly. To do otherwise is to be false to our responsibilities to ourselves and to generations yet to come.