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.