“BUCHANAN, N.Y., Sept. 23 – Last week, there was a disappointing test of the emergency sirens at the Indian Point nuclear power plant here. This week, there was a leak from one of the pools containing the spent-fuel rods.
The storm of protest over the handling of the leak, with several elected officials expressing anger that they were not notified sooner, recalled the months and years following the Sept. 11 attacks, when the movement to shut the plant down had the most momentum.
But even if the plant were to be shut, as some state and federal lawmakers continue to urge, the issue of what to do with the highly radioactive spent-fuel rods would not go away. With plans to accept spent fuel, at Yucca Mountain in Nevada delayed, those rods would most likely remain here in northern Westchester County for many years.
Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns the plant, is now developing a storage system using dry casks or silos to contain the spent-fuel rods, because the pools that now hold the rods will eventually run out of room. It was during excavation work earlier this month in preparation for the transfer of rods that workers found dampness along a hairline crack on the outside wall of the pool at reactor No. 2.
The leak was so small that it was difficult to collect enough water at first to test, and initial tests came back negative. But another test days later revealed low levels of radioactivity, and Entergy officials are now trying to determine its precise source, a process that could take weeks. It could be residual moisture from a much larger leak from the same pool that was repaired in 1992.
Engineers are also considering the possibility that there is a small hole in the pool’s steel liner through which water is seeping.
Whatever its source, Entergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees the nuclear industry, have said that the leak poses no health risk to the public or to workers at the plant.
Tests show that the level of radioactivity in the leaking water is minimal — less than 1 percent of the amount in a household smoke detector. The level drops away to almost nothing 1 to 2 feet from the moisture
On Friday, workers — whose radiation exposure at the plant is meticulously tracked — toiled within feet of the leak, without protective clothing
Leaks are not unusual at nuclear power plants, Entergy officials say. For 15 years, water from a slow leak at another pool at the inactive Indian Point 1 reactor has been monitored, collected and disposed of.
But what incensed elected officials this week was the delay in notifying them. They learned on Tuesday, along with the news media, about the leak, which was discovered to be radioactive nearly two weeks earlier.
This week, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called for Senate hearings. The Westchester County executive, Andrew J. Spano, asked for a meeting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman, Nils J. Diaz. And the State Emergency Management Office, with Gov. George E. Pataki’s support, wrote to the commission to demand an investigation.
Entergy officials say they were taken aback by the official response, arguing that they followed all protocols in dealing with the leak. They said they would have alerted public officials sooner had there been any threat. Moreover, Entergy said, it needed time to assess the leak so that it had information. “If we were to try to communicate the minute we find evidence of something, we would be overwhelming the public with information,” said Geoffrey E. Schwartz, the engineer in charge of the dry cask storage project.
Don M. Leach, Entergy Nuclear Northeast’s director of engineering, said: “There is nothing other than a completely aboveboard, rigorous process at work here.”
But Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky of Westchester, who has long been critical of Entergy, said the company should have alerted elected officials immediately.
“They should have said, ‘Here’s what we know and we can’t draw any conclusions, so sit tight,”‘ he said in a phone interview on Friday. “If they were to start engaging in that sort of pattern, eventually there would be a sense that there’s a cop on the beat.”
On Tuesday, Representative Nita M. Lowey issued a statement voicing “outrage that Entergy left the public in the dark about this leak for over a week.” She contended that Entergy would not have discovered the leak were it not for the construction work.
But Entergy counters that any major leak would be apparent from dropping water levels in the pools. And chemists and engineers periodically bore into the soil for samples and continually monitor the air. “We have a lot of data points to give us information that something’s not right,” Mr. Leach said.”
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