What Gordon Thompson says about the Indian Point nuclear power plant could keep half of New York and New Jersey up at night. Thompson, author of a new report on safety at the facility, argues that the greatest danger is not from hijackers dive-bombing the reactors but from terrorists armed with weapons as simple as buckets and hoses.
That’s because Indian Point, like most nuclear plants in the U.S., stores its spent fuel rods in covered pools. Drain the water—by breaching the wall or displacing the liquid with another object or just siphoning it off—and you’d have an apocalypse on your hands. Even a partial loss of fluid, Thompson says, could cause the rods to ignite and release cesium 137, a lethal radioactive isotope, into the air. “Once a pool fire gets going, nobody could approach it. It would be a smoky, slow-burning fire, giving off this cloud of smoke. It would probably hug the ground and drift downwind,” he says. He talks in terms of epic time, describing a landscape that would remain uninhabitable for generations.
This month, Thompson completed his study, “Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel,” for the Westchester County chapter of Citizens Awareness Network, a group based within what’s known as Indian Point’s 10-mile “Evacuation Planning Zone,” a small circle inside the 17-and-a-half-mile “Peak Fatality Zone,” nestled within a 50-mile “Peak Injury Zone.” More than 20 million people live within this double bull’s-eye.
Testimony and research from Thompson—director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Institute for Resource and Security Studies—have led to significant changes elsewhere. Plants in Germany, for instance, now store old fuel rods in special vaults known as “dry casks,” a method that is safer but more expensive. Working on an array of sustainable-energy issues, his firm claims a client list that includes the U. S. Department of Energy, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank.
His push for dry-cask storage is less welcome at Indian Point. Just as Thompson is certain a partial loss of water in the cooling pools would result in a fire, officials there are certain he’s wrong.
“We are very confident in the safety of the pools,” says Jim Steets, a spokesperson for Entergy Nuclear, which owns the Buchanan, New York, facility and nine other plants. “The danger of a pool fire is so low, it’s almost nonexistent. Even if you take the water out, pool fire is not necessarily an automatic consequence. It’s possible, given a variety of conditions. Gordon Thompson is not an expert. He is not qualified to make that judgment.”
Thompson, for the record, studied science and mechanical engineering in Australia and holds a doctorate in applied mathematics from Oxford University. He has spent decades assessing hazards associated with nuclear facilities and identifying alternative designs and modes of operation that can reduce risks.
Those dangers have only increased with the rise of Al Qaeda, for whom a place like Indian Point could be a prime target. A recent poll conducted by Entergy Nuclear Northeast found that 19 percent of guards at the plant believe it remains vulnerable to terrorists, even after security was upgraded. A majority of guards polled described the environment for raising concerns as “chilled,” and 12 percent said they’d suffered reprisals for speaking up.
Steets says Indian Point has always emphasized security, adding that “enhancements” have been made in security, staffing, surveillance, barriers, and communications.
But there’s a limit to how far Entergy can be forced to go in protecting its facilities. Diane Screnci, spokesperson for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, points out that her agency doesn’t require private companies to shield themselves from acts of war. The NRC considers Indian Point’s high-density pools—so called because the rods are packed tightly together—to be as safe as dry casks. Still, Screnci says, the NRC is re-assessing existing rules about guarding the grounds. “It’s not like walking through a supermarket,” she says. “It’s far more secure than that. The guards are well trained to deal with the possibility that someone may not want to wait around for clearance.”
Much of the detailed information about security, Screnci says, can’t safely be made available to the public.
Thompson is quick to point out that he also conceals details that could be useful to terrorists. “I bend over backwards to make it that way,” he says. Some information needs to be kept confidential, he contends, but complete secrecy runs counter to democracy. “Experience shows that secrecy breeds incompetence, complacency, and conflicts of interest within the organizations that are shielded from public view,” Thompson says.
Likewise, the push for profits may counter the drive to use the safest possible technology. Cooling fuel rods in pools is cheap, compared to sorting them out into separate, dry units. “Dry-cask storage maximizes protection,” says David Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former consultant at Indian Point. “The spent fuel rods are harder to attack when stored that way, [and] the amount of radioactivity released would be far less in a successful attack.”
Some would argue a glitch as simple as a power loss could render a high-density pool unsafe. That kind of event turns out to be not uncommon at Indian Point, according to Steets. Three weeks ago, in fact, the main generator quit when a switch shorted. (The generator is backed up by two off-site sources and three diesel generators.) Steets insists the setup at Indian Point is safe, arguing that the water doesn’t have to be kept cool to prevent disaster and that the electricity used to regulate the temperature has occasionally been shut off without trouble. Sure, critics complain about the pool being covered only by a warehouse-style metal roof, but he says the water alone is enough to keep the rods safe. Further, the pool can’t easily be emptied because it has no drain, he says, and it’s surrounded by six-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls.
In the same way the Founding Fathers never imagined the AK-47 when they created the right to bear arms, Thompson contends, the NRC failed to anticipate the threats we now face. He believes the current reliance on cooling pools is behind the times, but hasn’t been updated because workers in the field fail to understand that it’s potentially harmful. He also blames the closure of nuclear departments at universities through the 1970s for a dramatic decrease in research. “You’ve got what can politely be called an immature industry, not particularly curious or creative,” he says. “The ones in it now are not capable of making the leap. For most people in it, it’s their meal ticket. The idea that there’s something they can’t understand . . . a clever scientist faced with a mystery says, ‘Ooooh, ooooh, tell me more.’ A person who is less of a scientist doesn’t want to be bothered.
“Complacency is really very amazing,” he adds. “The bottom-line attitude is, ‘We don’t have to do anything about high-density pools because the danger of a pool fire is so low.’ ”
What troubles Thompson, and many of the people who have to live within 50 miles of Indian Point, is that the consequences would be so grave.