Sunday, August 12, 2007

Sounding the Alarm, or at Least Trying To

Indian Point nuclear power plant.
Published: August 12, 2007

BUCHANAN, N.Y.

And speaking of troubled infrastructure.

Admittedly, it’s a different category than the recent rash of collapsing bridges, exploding steam pipes and overwhelmed storm sewers.

Still, in a summer whose theme seems to be things that don’t work, a rimshot, please, for the ongoing exercise in malfunction at a place where you really would rather not see it: the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

True, this is not about running the reactors. Instead it’s the ongoing “Keystone Kops” episode about putting together a functional siren system that is now nearing another big deadline. That would be Aug. 24, when the updated $15 million system of 155 sirens is supposed to be ready to alert residents (let’s not dwell on what they would be alerted to) of Westchester, Rockland, Orange and Putnam Counties who are within 10 miles of the plant on the Hudson River.

The new system was initially due by Jan. 30, but Entergy Nuclear, which owns the plant, wasn’t ready and was granted an extension by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission until April 15.

Whoops! On April 12, 31 of what were then 150 new sirens failed to sound during a test. That led to a $130,000 fine.

And now? The company said 96 percent of the sirens worked properly in its most recent test. On the other hand, it’s not a great sign that with two weeks to go, the company and regulators are arguing about just how loud the sirens have to be.

Siren-Gate dates to 2005, when provisions inserted by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton into the federal Energy Policy Act required backup battery power for the sirens at Indian Point, which were installed when the plant was built in the mid-1970s.

The plans called for replacing the 156 old sirens, which had mechanical rotating horns and were activated by radio signals, with new units featuring activating systems that can be triggered by cellphone, microwave radio or Internet-based signals.

But company officials say numerous glitches have prevented the system from operating properly. And public officials say the project has become a nightmare, sucking up time, energy and resources, with the outcome still uncertain.

“This has consumed so much time for so long — half my staff on a daily basis in one way or another,” said Tony Sutton, the commissioner of emergency services in Westchester County. “And when we’re done, what will we have? An outdoor siren system born in the cold war.”

Well, one hopes it will be a better siren system, but still, the episode does raise questions.

The first, as enunciated more than once by the county executive, Andrew J. Spano, is if Entergy has so much trouble getting the sirens to work, what does it say about its ability to run, say, a nuclear plant?

Second, as Mr. Sutton puts it, is this is the level of technology we should expect now? The sirens, it turns out, are meant to be heard outside, not inside. This might have made sense three decades ago, when most people didn’t have air-conditioning and left the windows open, and shopped on Main Street instead of at a bunkerlike mall. Might not a system with text messages, e-mail links, chips that turn on television sets — something in tune with modern technology — make a bit more sense today?

AN Entergy spokesman, Jim Steets, said the company’s expertise was in running nuclear plants not siren technology. He said that the idea that the siren problems speak to the overall operations of the plant was something of a cheap shot. Still, he says, “I’ll admit that we put ourselves in a position that enabled them to say it.”

And both sides know that the siren issue isn’t really a siren issue. There’s not much margin of error on many large projects the public depends on — ask the drivers who use the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. But there surely isn’t much on a nuclear plant at the edge of the most densely populated part of the country, which periodically has to explain things like leaks, however minuscule, of tritium and strontium 90.

The sirens, presumably, will work sooner or later. The real battle, just beginning, is the epic one over renewing Indian Point’s license to produce electricity until 2035, a matter that probably won’t be decided for three years.

And on that one, the issue is about a lot more than the sirens. It’s about why the sirens are needed, whether to renew the license for a plant that almost certainly could never be built at Indian Point today, and whether there’s any real alternative to the power it provides.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Unlike the route 35 bridge in Minneapolis, the infrastructure represented by Indian Point does not require that you visit it, or entrust your life to it, in order to partake of its services. The dead drivers in Minneapolis were sitting directly on the bridge when it failed.

The high energy steam pipe in Manhattan's center, which blew up in the middle of one of the busiest streets in town, was like a Consolidated Edison improvised explosive device, specifically placed directly under unsuspecting Manhattanites, and then remotely detonated, via lack of maintenance.

Aside from its sirens, Indian Point is isolated from the public by remoteness. Even though its 30 mile distance from NYC has been called not enough, the fact is that its closeness allows a level of dependability upon which Con Ed relies, and upon which New Yorkers rely in a rather hard to see way. Were Indian Point closed (or much further away) Manhattan and the other boroughs could not skate as they have for decades, rejecting almost every effort to site electrical generation near them. The 30 mile distance provides the stable base power allowing life in NYC to be what it is, and to do so minus soot, unburned hydrocarbons, smog, or excessive CO2. Con Ed skates on this advantage. New Yorkers skate on this advantage. Mayor Bloomberg skates on this advantage. It is taken entirely for granted.... because it HAS been granted.... By Indian Point.

But about Indian Point's remoteness. A local antinuclear gadfly attempted just last Sunday to hold a vigil in front of Indian Point, and take pictures of himself doing it. He wrote later in his blog that no suitable vantage point was found, to pose in front of IPEC (Entergy has renamed the facility Indian Point Energy Center).

IPEC is isolated from surrounding communities, by its position on the Verplanck Isthmus. A tongue of land jutting southwest into the Hudson just below Peekskill, upon which Westchester has sited its Wheelabrator garbage burning waste management plant. Also on the promontory is the Eberhard paint and solvents factory, the Buchanan town liquid waste disposal plant, the huge Karta materials transfer plant (large scale crushing and shredding of metals and other solids), The La Farge Gypsum and drywall factory, which imports gypsum rock from seagoing vessels which dock just below IPEC, and burns it in eight monstrous gas ovens into drywall products, which are shipped out on 100 or so 18-wheel trucks each day. Nestled among some 300 acres of unused Con Ed woodlands, and among the brownfield campuses I described to you above, IPEC sits aloof and unfindable on its own 250 acre woodland preserve, hidden behind upgraded security fences, and so remote from any major roads, trains, population centers, or clear views, that last Sunday's antinuke protester had to drive 5 miles north, to take his vigil pictures at the Monteverde Oldstone restaurant on the Bear Mountain parkway--- the closest place where one can get an unobstructed view of the plant.

So comparisons with the route 35 bridge, or the Manhattan steam break are really not well informed. The siting of IPEC away from everything was very well done, and results in isolating all of us from its operation in a way not granted to the Minneapolis bridge users, or the New Yorkers walking above the steam pipe when it failed.

Now on to what the sirens can tell us, or not tell us, about IPEC.

The nuclear plant itself is run under the strictest regimens possible, and to those working inside the plant, the sirens do not exist. At no time, do the plant workers use the sirens. The daily regimes of control, upgrade, repair, inspection, and renewal go on without any interchange with the emergency office that nominally operates the sirens for Entergy. Internal plant staff rely on 2 way radios, page/party public address systems, local proprietary cell phones, and internal telephones for their communications, emergency or otherwise. The IPEC Emergency Operations Facility , where the siren operators have their headquarters, is housed in a separate building three quarters of a mile from the nuclear plant. Staff at the EOF generally have little interaction with the in-plant operators, and have little contact with the in-plant engineering, and maintenance crews. When one considers that EOF staff generally does NOT have an emergency to work on at any specific time, work-life for this group is not at all reminiscent of daily worklife for in-plant people, who have plenty to do, all day, every day.

When Entergy over-committed to install new sirens by Jan 1, 2007, the IPEC internal plant engineering groups were not involved in the decision, or in its implementation. Many in those groups thought the media had gotten the date wrong, because by its very scope, they knew Jan 1, 2008 was a more realistic date. The White Plains Engineering Staff at Entergy was in flux at the time the commitment was made, with people shuffling desks at Entergy Northeast headquarters in what the corporation calls a "Realignment". At the time that the White Plains HQ was shuffling desks, and promising instantaneous sirens, the in-plant engineers were going about their well-planned expert preparations for their very successful refuelling outage, and their NRC inspections, which they passed with flying colors. White Plains HQ stepping in, allowed the in-plant people to concentrate on giving us safe uninterrupted electrical power, by taking on a frivolous, unproductive task, which had only a legalistic reason to exist, and which offered the public no additional safety. Then the White Plains office handed off the unnecessary sirens, with their unrealistic installation date, to a contractor. At no time is the operating of IPEC's reactors ever handed off to a contractor. At no time is the maintenance.... or the engineering inside IPEC handed off to a contractor. Handing off the sirens to a contractor was a unique act on the part of the newly "realigned" White Plains office, and so the choice of real safety over publicity-driven safety facade management was a simple corporate prioritization, one that has resulted in a media flap, and nothing else.

So, far from being any indicator of how Indian Point is run, .... the siren situation is entirely untypical of how business is conducted at your safely isolated, well-nigh invisible, and yet comfortingly near nuclear plant on the Hudson.

But it does make for easily-writable pseudo-technical speculation pieces. Mr. Applebome's piece is typical of the genre. As far as his snarky little title, let's all remember that Entergy has a fully functional siren system in place, always has had, in fact, right now Entergy has two functioning siren systems, neither of which will ever be needed.

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