Sales: Lessons from Indian Point

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by John Sales of Barre, a geologist for many years for Mobil Oil Corp.

Judging by Indian Point, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may be forcing us to base Vermont Yankee’s geologic risk analysis on antiquated data:

“Much new seismological information is available since their initial approvals (of Indian Point) in 1973 and 1975. Nevertheless the US NRC, so far has not permitted any new information to be used or old information on which the original licenses were granted to be contested in considering extension of licenses,” according to a 2008 study by researcher Lynn Sykes.

The Indian Point nuclear plant in Peekskill, N.Y., is about the same age and design and going through the same relicensing at the same time as Vermont Yankee. They have the same operator, Entergy, and of course, the same watchdog — the NRC. However, Indian Point is closer to more people (21 million within potential risk) than any other nuclear plant, and thus gets much more scrutiny for analysis of risk. It is geologically next door to Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University — a world-class seismic research center. The long-term lead researcher at Lamont Doherty, Lynn Sykes, has made his last research effort, both before and after retirement, an in-depth analysis of that risk (currently America’s highest-risk nuclear plant.)

The following points are taken from the summary paragraph in Sykes’ study, “Observations and Tectonic Setting of Historic and Instrumentally Located Earthquakes in the Greater New York City — Philadelphia Areas,” in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.

The Sykes study integrates all know modern instrument-based seismic as well as historic data to that date. Its major finding is that Indian Point is located at the intersection of the two most seismically active linear features (faults) brought to light by the new data. Their concluding sentence: “This (Indian Point) is clearly one of the least favorable sites in our study area (roughly 13,000 square miles) from an earthquake hazard and risk perspective.” The earthquake, near Washington, Indian Point seismicity, and Vermont Yankee are in similar settings — each at the termination of a Triassic Basin. They may have similar seismic risk.

The NRC disallows this new data to be presented, in conjunction with the 20-year extension permit. Thus the data and analysis available for licensing of Indian Point, and presumably Vermont Yankee, and Judge Murtha’s decision, appears to have been very incomplete. It predates the quake that cracked the Washington Monument and led to extended shutdown of the nearest nuclear plant. It even predates Fukushima and Chernobyl, as well as the modern seismic array deployed since 1974. This is like basing the whole of earth’s history on the book of Genesis — data, knowledge and concern have exploded exponentially since 1974. The NRC appears to be inhibiting objective science and, that our highest-risked plant also puts the highest population in harm’s way, lets us know where the NRC stands — not the neutral watchdog we appointed.

With demise of Yucca Mountain, a new concern for Vermont is that there is a thrust toward “bury your own trash permanently locally.” Half the world’s N-waste repositories are in granite, and eastern Vermont has the world’s best granite. Why, there’s a good granite pluton just northwest of Brattleboro and less than 20 miles from Vermont Yankee — that’s coming down the pike! Ironically the N-waste will now increase by one third and Vermont will get no power from that third.

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  • You are incorrect about the two power plants. Vermont Yankee is a 620-megawatt, Mark 1 boiling water reactor. It is the same design and vintage as the Fukushima reactors, with the spent fuel inside the containment building with the reactor itself.
    Indian Point 2 & 3 are 1,100-megawatt pressurized water reactors with separate containment buildings and spent fuel pool buildings.

  • timothy k price

    Vermont Yankee is situated in the Connecticut River Valley, which is one of the largest rift valleys on the planet. It was formed when the Earth’s crust was ripped apart as Africa pulled away from the North American continent. It may not have been active in the recent past, but I have never understood why it is assumed to be a “stable” geologic area.

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