Indian Point Crisis

Open Letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo

One of the stupidest schemes on the planet has just hit a snag.

The plan is for natural-gas giant, Spectra Energy, to construct a new high-pressure, 42-inch gas pipeline in the immediate vicinity of the Indian Point nuclear power plants. The pipeline would carry fracked-gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale wells up into New England and then to LNG terminals in Canada. From there the gas would be exported to India, Japan and elsewhere around the planet.

The proposed new pipeline has been bitterly opposed for over two years.

The Spectra project, known as the Alconquin Market (AIM) project, has been opposed by local citizens, New York State Assembly and Senate members, Westchester County legislators, Town Board members, Town Supervisors, Congressmembers Engel and Lowey and many, many scientific experts. It has been questioned by Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. The Union of Concerned of Scientists, Greenpeace, the Nuclear Information Resource Service, Riverkeeper, SAPE (Stop the Alconquin Pipeline Expansion), Clearwater, Sane Energy Project and dozens of other environmental organizations have all weighed in. The Indian Point 11 who recently engaged in civil disobedience at the site are the most recent heroes and heroines of the battle.

Despite the extraordinary risks and the veritable tsunami of opposition, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the project in 2014, as did the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2015.

Construction began in the fall of 2015 – on the west side of the Hudson River.

Then, something quite extraordinary happened. The Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, on February 27, 2016 called upon FERC “to stay” its approval for the project. This Open Letter is in response to the Governor’s action.

Dear Governor Cuomo,

Thank you.

Thank you for asking the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) to stay its approval of Spectra Energy’s Alconquin Pipeline until New York State has conducted a safety analysis of the project.

Your letter of February 29, 2016 says,

“Specifically, FERC must reconsider whether the proximity to Indian Point and the construction methods [italics the author’s] required to install the Project would have an impact on the recent increasing leaks of tritium into ground water or otherwise increase the potential for serious operational problems at Indian Point.”

“Construction methods” — bravo for flagging that item. Construction methods are a crucial part of the discussion. For example, blasting. Yes, during the construction of this new pipeline there will be blasting.

Blasting. Please, just for a moment, take that word in. Somehow it’s a word one doesn’t want to envision anywhere close to Indian Point.

We also commend you for including in your proposed study the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Homeland Security, the Public Service Commission, among other state agencies. We would like to respectfully submit, however, that there are two subjects missing from your proposed analysis: seismology and gas pipeline expertise. We strongly urge that you bring aboard some of the world’s top seismologists from the Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observation institute, and independent gas pipeline experts. More on this in a moment.

Let’s just quickly review why blasting anywhere near Indian Point is potentially a disaster. These nukes are 40 years old. They are subject to a host of aging problems – corroding steel, aging concrete, decrepit electrical wiring. Unfortunately, these nukes are falling apart. No wonder that there were multiple incidents in 2015 when the plant had to shut-down.

Some specific problems include the pipes beneath the reactors, the irradiated fuel pools and other buildings on site. All of these pipes are corroding — and therefore seriously weakened. Add in the problem of embrittlement — the metal cladding around the toxic irradiated fuel sitting in the irradiated fuel pools is subject to failure. Also consider that the irradiated fuel pools are leaking. More disastrously, said pools cannot be repaired because no one knows exactly where the leaks are. All we know is that the latest reading on tritium levels near the nukes have shot up by a stunning 65,000 per cent.

In short, one could say these aged nukes have the equivalent of severe osteoporosis, plus catastrophic heart problems. They are on the verge of complete collapse. Such a patient needs to be in the ICU – and in a hospital not in the midst of a blast zone.

Ok. So what’s the situation regarding blasting? Spectra Energy has been remarkably opaque on this topic. In their application to FERC they basically said blasting won’t be necessary. But, if it is necessary, it will not happen within what is called the IPEC-secured zone — i.e. not within 1500 feet of the nuclear reactors. And then Spectra states, by the way, if blasting is necessary within the IPEC-secured zone, Spectra will “consult” with Entergy about the topic. (See Spectra Energy’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, Chapter 4-277.)

As you know Entergy is the owner of Indian Point. (The company also owns the Pilgrim nuke in MA, Vermont Yankee in VT — recently shut down due to radioactive leaks — Fitzpatrick in upstate NY and many other severely-challenged nukes.) Saying that Spectra and Entergy will “consult” regarding any blasting is about as re-assuring as saying, if there’s a problem at Watergate get G. Gordon Liddy to consult with Jeb Magruder. Or if Enron is tanking rely on Ken Lay to have a chat with Jeffrey Skilling.

Let’s dig a little deeper here. The Indian Point reactors were built in bedrock. In fact, the plant is surrounded by old rock quarries. There’s the old Mohegan Quarry north of the plant. It’s “honey-colored” limestone was used in the construction of St. John the Divine’s Cathedral in Manhattan and for the US Senate Building in the nation’s capitol.

Across the Hudson River is an active granite quarry. And, immediately south of Indian Point is what’s known as Verplanck Quarry – a mined-out and abandoned quarry that became a beautiful, azure-blue lake.

Quarries, of course, mean rocks. Nice solid, dependable, strong rocks. Much as one might decry the deliberations inside the US Senate Building, as far as we know the building is solid – well, as a rock.

A quick look at a USGS report makes the story clear.1 The old Verplanck Quarry is nestled so close to the reactor that one can see Indian Point Unit 2’s concrete dome and the red-and-white stripped concrete stack — since removed — to the north.

According to Spectra this is the place where Spectra is to bring its pipeline (that will have crossed underneath the Hudson River at about 100 feet below the river’s bed) onto the shore. It will be the location of the HDD — that is the complicated horizontal drilling necessitated by said burrowing beneath the river.

What’s interesting about the quarry is that the ramparts of stone rising out of the crystalline waters range in height from 30 to 80 feet high. And, according to those who have dived into the lake (in years past this was an illegal but thrilling activity for some), its waters were, at least, 160 feet deep. So this particular strata of carbonate limestone runs hundreds of feet deep. It is not the “shallow bedrock” that Spectra Energy has claimed is located on both sides of the river.

Yes, one can argue that limestone is a relatively “soft” rock (and therefore, it might not need a lot of blasting), but, according to the USGS, this limestone is embedded with layers of extremely hard rock. Further, some of these layers are in a “near-vertical” attitude.

In short, the geology of the area surrounding Indian Point is complex. Unusually so.

There are two questions that need to be addressed: 1) What are the risks here of “induced seismicity” and 2) what relevance might the two nearby, major fault lines have to this issue?

Induced seismicity means seismic events caused by human activity. All we need really say is Oklahoma, right? We now know that the drilling of hydraulically fracked wells and the injection of fracked-gas-waste products into deep disposal wells have resulted in literally hundreds of earthquakes in Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and other states. Now, those were all examples of deep drilling – drilling down to 5000 to 6000 feet. So the situation at Indian Point is very, very different. However, no one expected the literally hundreds of tremors and earthquakes generated in the above-mentioned states. Given the potentially catastrophic consequences of induced tremors near Indian Point, this issue must be carefully examined by outside experts.

And further, at Indian Point we have the very real issue of two major fault lines that cross in the vicinity of the plant. First, there is the Ramapo Fault. It has been described as a “braid of fractures” and then, there is the Stamford-Peekskill fault just north of the plant.

How will days of blasting, possibly weeks or even months of blasting impact on this complex geology? Now, if we are lucky blasting will have no effect. But should we leave such a grave matter to luck? Or to the highly-biased assessments of Spectra Energy?

Surely — at the very least — some of the brilliant Columbia University Lamont-Doherty scientists who have studied the seismic risks in the region must be consulted. Dr Lynn R. Syke, Dr. John Armbruster, Dr. Leonardo Seeber, Dr. Won-Young Kim — all come to mind. (Their study, Observations and Tectonic Settings of Historic and Instrumentally-Located Earthquakes in the Greater New York City- Philadelphia Area was published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, August 25, 2008, see pdf)

Governor Cuomo, this is potentially one of the great moments of your political career. You stand up to Spectra, Entergy, FERC — and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Fantastic, terrific first step. Next you bring on board Senators Schumer and Gillibrand to join your request of a stay by FERC. You bury your hatchet viz-a-viz Mayor de Blasio. He too comes on board with a letter to FERC. You hire the independent seismologists at Columbia University or elsewhere to do a thorough and fair assessment of the seismic issue. You call a Special Session of the New York State Legislature to address the other compelling safety issues that have been thoroughly researched by nuclear and pipeline safety experts, such as Paul M. Blanch and Richard Kuprewicz.

And when FERC ignores or over-rides you — as they well might — you take the case to President Obama, to the New York Times (Matthew Wald might be interested), to the Washington Post, FOX, CNN, CBS, NPR, to Hillary, Bernie — even to Trump.

Or you cave. Frankly, if you fold, forget your political career, forget your “legacy.” Besides folding would be an utter betrayal of the approximately 30 million people who would be impacted by a disaster at Indian Point.

Sincerely yours,

Mina Hamilton

PS. Today is March 11. It’s the fifth anniversary of the triple-meltdown disaster at Fukushima. Need we say more?

  1. Flow-Log Analysis for Hydraulic Characterization of Selected Test Wells at the Indian Point Energy Center, Buchanan, NY. Open File 2008-1123 []
Mina Hamilton is a free-lance writer based in New York City. Her articles have appeared in Mother Jones, the Nation, the Progressive and In These Times. She is a frequent contributor to Dissident Voice - her previous articles on Fukushima for Dissident Voice include Japan's Nuclear Armageddon and the Experts and Fukushima's Boiling Water Reactors Continue to Boil. She was a contributing author of the book, Critical Mass: Voices for a Nuclear-Free Future, and a co-editor of Deadly Defense: Military Radioactive Landfills. Read other articles by Mina.