When it comes to Indian Point, the calculations of some earthquake scientists are shifting—and they’re not sure if government regulators are keeping up.
Federal regulators in May ordered up “in-depth analyses” of the dangers earthquakes pose to Indian Point and 20 other nuclear sites in the central and eastern United States. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is trying to figure out whether the plants are at greater risk than was thought at the time of their construction.
The N.R.C.’s current position is that there’s no need to worry—it says the plants “have substantial safety margin above their designs’ anticipated hazards” and “are safe for continued operation while more work is done.” Indian Point’s detailed risk analysis is due in June 2017.
Lynn Sykes, a seismologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, doubts the new analysis will lead to anything.
The chances New York City and its environs will see a big earthquake haven’t changed since 1962, when the first Indian Point reactor powered up on the Hudson River in upper Westchester County. In fact, says Sykes, “the earthquake hazard is the same today as when Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson River” in 1609.
But the understanding of that hazard by Sykes and other scientists has changed.
In 2008, Sykes was the lead author of a study that found quakes endanger New York more than previously thought. That study uncovered a fault line that runs from Stamford, Conn. to Peekskill, on the Hudson River just north of Indian Point.
Since then, scientists have gathered new data from a 5.8 magnitude 2011 earthquake in Virginia that shook much of the eastern seaboard. That quake was felt so strongly in New York, the air control tower at Kennedy Airport was evacuated. Several buildings in Washington were badly damaged—the Washington Monument was closed for repairs until mid-May.
The quake also shut down a nuclear plant in North Anna, Va., 11 miles from its epicenter. The NRC found that the frequency of the quake’s vibrations were greater than the North Anna plant was designed to withstand—“the first instance of an operating reactor in the U.S. exceeding its design limit for ground acceleration.” The plant was shut for about three months.
Studies of the Virginia quake added to scientists’ belief that eastern quakes, though infrequent, are dangerous when they occur.
“Eastern earthquakes are richer in these high frequencies than anticipated by the original designs of Indian Point and other reactors in the eastern and central U.S.,” said Sykes.
That’s a problem, Sykes says, because Indian Point and other reactors were designed according to standards based on California and west coast earthquakes, which are stronger but involve less shaking.
The N.R.C. says it recognizes the issue. It says its reviews of Indian Point and other reactors will weigh new research on ground vibration, and will “identify if any modifications need to be made to increase the ability of certain components to withstand the higher ground motion.”
“Once these reviews are completed, N.R.C. will use this information to determine if additional regulatory actions or plant modifications are necessary,” the agency said in a statement to Capital.
A spokesman for Entergy, Indian Point’s owner, is not sweating the N.R.C. review, and indicated that the facility is safe from earthquakes, even accounting for the latest calculations by scientists.
“Indian Point is protected not just from the strongest earthquake that has happened, but from the strongest earthquake that is possible,” said the spokesman, Jerry Nappi, in an email. “The latest analysis, based in part on a catalogue of seismic sources which was co-authored by Lamont-Doherty, demonstrates that Indian Point is designed to withstand an earthquake not only much greater than has ever been observed in this area, but also the strongest earthquake that could be expected.”
Sykes thinks the N.R.C. review will have one principal result.
“All it’s going to do is postpone the issue until 2017,” he said. “In the meantime, Indian Point 2 will have run four years beyond its current license.”
Indian Point 2’s license expired in September; the N.R.C. is letting it continue running while it decides to whether to renew the license for another 20 years. Indian Point 3’s license runs out next year. (Indian Point 1 was shut down in 1974.)
Sykes says the while the earthquake hazard in the New York area hasn’t changed since the 1600s, the earthquake risk has changed.
“The risk has to do with the population and structures that are at risk from a certain amount of shaking,” said Sykes. “Of course, New York City has a much higher risk today than it had in 1609. ... Indian Point is closer to more people, whether you measure within 10 miles or 75 miles, than any other reactor in the country.”
The changing risk assessment is unlikely in the short term to change hardened views of residents, which were on full display at a recent public hearing on the plant’s safety record in Cortlandt Manor.
Peter Wolf, a lawyer from Hastings-on-Hudson, was among a number of people worried about how the New York area could be evacuated in a disaster like the one that struck the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011.
“With all due justice to the government, they are not equipped to handle this type of emergency,” he said.
But the plant also had plenty of supporters.
“Indian Point supports thousands of jobs, both at the plant and in neighboring communities, many of which are held by skilled union workers,” said John Montgomery, president of Millwright Local 740, which has many members working at the plant.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that he wants to shut down Indian Point. His leverage is the plant’s state permit to discharge water in the Hudson River. The state says the water is so hot, it kills fish.
But litigation over the issue is years from being resolved and, after having pleased Indian Point opponents with his positioning, the governor has not made closing it a political priority. (The logistical ramifications would be significant, including the fact that taking the plant offline would complicate another one of Cuomo’s stated energy goals, which is to reduce the state’s carbon emissions.)
The glacial pace of the state’s litigation and the feds’ bureaucracy—to say nothing of the politics—makes it likely Indian Point will operate for years to come.
Meanwhile, Sykes says, the New York area should be ready for a quake, someday, that affects the plant.
“If you operate something for 40 or 60 years,” Sykes said, “you have to expect there is a chance of being shaken stronger than the largest historic earthquake.”
This article appeared in the July issue of Capital magazine.