Indian Point: Questions About Exemptions From Fire Safety Standards

Indian Point Fire
Point of Disorder: This weekend’s transformer failure is third for the Indian Point nuclear power plant in the past eight years. Tony Fischer/Flickr

On Saturday evening, a transformer inside New York's Indian Point nuclear plant caught fire. The fire was not at the nuclear half of the facility, and according to Entergy, the plant's owner, there was no risk of a radioactive event. The plant shut down quickly and without major incident, though an as-of-yet unknown volume of dielectric fluid from the transformer—used as a coolant and electrical insulator—breached the containment moat walls and spilled into the Hudson River. Entergy says the fluid, which is clear and has the consistency of mineral oil, contains no PCBs, a highly toxic group of compounds found in other types of oil. Still, the sight of a thick black plume of smoke rising from the plant Saturday was a reminder to New Yorkers of their unparalleled proximity to a nuclear plant; located just 38 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, Indian Point is the closest nuclear plant in the country to so densely populated a metropolis.

The smoke was also a reminder of Indian Point's recent history of problems. This was the third transformer failure in the last eight years. In two of the three cases, the transformers themselves were brand-spanking-new, as far as transformers go. The one that caught fire in 2007 was original to site, and had been running since the mid-1970s. But the transformer that exploded in 2010 had just been installed four years prior, in 2006. And the fire on Saturday was sparked by a transformer placed in service in 2007; it was just eight years old. When transformers are built to last 30 to 40 years, these failures are becoming a big, unexplained problem.

To add to the conundrum, the electrical system of the transformer that burned on Saturday had been inspected just two months prior, in March.

"There's nothing from those reviews that indicated that this was about to occur," Jerry Nappi, an Entergy spokesman, told Newsweek on Monday.

In short, Entergy has no idea why this keeps happening. All three transformers were made by different manufacturers, according to Nappi.

"Even though industry guidelines show that these should operate satisfactorily, this clearly is outside the bounds of what we know," Nappi said. "We have to figure out how to fix this issue of transformer failure. We don't accept the fact that we've had these multiple transformer failures, and we have to find out why they occurred."

Meanwhile, the event has raised the ire of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has spent the past three days describing the plant as "inherently problematic" and "controversial." His attorney general's office has hinted at legal action.

"At this point we are reviewing our options," Nick Benson, a spokesman for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, said on Monday. "Part of our concern is that incidents like this one could happen, and worse than this."

Entergy is currently working through a painstaking process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to relicense the 40-year-old plant for another 20 years of operation. Meanwhile, the attorney general's office, along with environmental groups like Riverkeeper, have submitted a number of petitions asking the NRC to amend the relicensing process. Currently, only "passive" components of the plant are required to be reviewed during relicensing, and the plant's two transformers, which are classified as "active" components, are exempt. The attorney general asked that the transformers be considered "passive" components, so they would be included in the review.

Initially, the NRC's Atomic Safety & Licensing Board ruled in favor of the attorney general. But in March, the NRC overturned that decision, writing in an order that "the board erred in its factual and legal determinations," and concluding that the transformers do not require the "aging management review" that is required of "passive" components during relicensing.

According to Diane Screnci, NRC's public affairs officer, a hypothetical aging plan would not amount to more extensive inspections or a higher level of maintenance than is required by current standards.

"The Maintenance Rule, along with existing monitoring, surveillance, inspection and testing programs, serves the purpose for electrical transformers that an aging management program would serve for a passive component," the NRC wrote in its decision. If the attorney general's office chooses to appeal the NRC's decision, it would likely go to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

If it did, it wouldn't be the only legal challenge facing Indian Point. For the past seven years, former 14-term New York State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has been litigating over a different gripe about the plant: Certain parts of Indian Point's fire safety mechanisms have been exempted from nationwide nuclear fire safety rules.

Since 1979, every nuclear plant in the country has been required to install wrapping around cables that provide power to safe-shutdown mechanisms that can last one hour under the high-heat conditions of a fire. But when the NRC tested Indian Point's fire barrier wrapping in 2005, it found that it couldn't last one hour in hot shutdown conditions. Entergy requested an exemption from the rule, and by 2007, the NRC had lowered the requirement for Indian Point to wrapping that lasts 24 minutes in fire in the case of one emergency shut-down system at the plant, and 30 minutes in another.

The NRC says that the exemptions do not affect the ability of the plant to shut down safely in the event of a fire.

"When there is a request for an exemption for the regulation you have to demonstrate you have another way of meeting the regulation...other fire safety procedures that could deal with the fire," Screnci said. In other words, the NRC decided that Entergy has other safety mechanisms in place that make up for failing to meet to original standards. In 2008, Brodsky sued the NRC, alleging that the commission had violated the Atomic Energy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by granting the exemption without a public hearing. The case eventually reached federal court, and in 2013 the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the NRC hadn't adequately explained why it had failed to hold a public hearing before finalizing the exemption to the fire safety rule, but ultimately sided with the NRC's technical decision on the exemption.

But Brodsky isn't convinced, and plans to bring some version of his argument back to court. He says that the NRC has issued "dozens if not hundreds" of exemptions to safety regulations like this one. According to Screnci, the commission has sent 12 letters of exemption to Entergy for fire safety systems at Indian Point, but that some of the exemptions could apply to more than one of the 150 fire zones found in each of the plant's two nuclear generating units.

"The plant is tottering on every level," Brodsky says. He predicts that given the Cuomo administration's blatant displeasure and the repeated unforeseen accidents, the plant will not make it through the relicensing process and will close within a year or two. "I'm not an anti-nuke ideologue. It's [about] whether it's actually cheaper, actually safe, and actually necessary. The answer to that is it's none of those. [And] it's these idiotic incidents that have eroded political support."