March 7, 2006

Federal Legislation Calls for Independent Safety Assessment  and Detailed Response to Witt Report Findings

(Tarrytown, NY) Today, Riverkeeper applauds the bi-partisan legislative efforts of New York and Connecticut members of Congress who have introduced legislation that, if passed, will have an impact on the health and safety of over 20 million residents living within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point. The bill, introduced by Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Congressman Christopher Shays (R-CT), Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY), Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Congresswoman Sue Kelly (R-NY), requires the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to conduct an Independent Safety Assessment of vital safety systems at Indian Point.  The bill also requires the NRC and FEMA to provide an explanation detailing the facts they relied upon in approving Indian Point’s emergency plans for the past four years, despite the findings of the 2003 Witt Report.  James Lee Witt – the nation’s foremost authority on emergency planning – concluded that the plans are inadequate to protect the people from an “unacceptable dose of radiation.”  The introduction of this legislation reflects the Congressional delegation’s deep concerns over ongoing safety problems and inadequate emergency planning at Indian Point.

“One thing we can certainly all agree on,” stated Riverkeeper’s President Alex Matthiessen, “is that as long as this plant operates and before a potential 20-year license extension is even considered, we ought to know that the plant’s vital systems are operating safely and that emergency evacuation plans would work in the event of an actual emergency.  We commend our congressional delegation in taking the lead on ensuring passage of this critical legislation in the House and urge their counterparts in the U.S. Senate to introduce similar legislation.”

An Independent Safety Assessment at Indian Point would be similar to the one conducted at the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, located near Bath, Maine, following years of poor performance and unplanned outages at the plant.  Maine Yankee’s problems, however, pale in comparison to those at Indian Point:  a December 2003 NRC report found that nine unplanned outages occurred at Indian Point 2 and 3 between December 2001 and August 2003 – more than six times the national annual average. Between 2004 and 2005 the plant had another six unplanned shutdowns.

“With a federal agency that does little except toss favors to the bidding of the nuclear industry,” states Lisa Rainwater van Suntum, Riverkeeper’s Indian Point Campaign Director, “be they green safety ratings or rejections of petitions addressing critical safety issues, we must rely on Congress to help the NRC figure out how to do its job.  Last year the NRC missed the boat on the severity of Indian Point’s siren failures, and Senator Clinton and her colleagues in Congress overrode them.  This year the NRC has the audacity to grant Indian Point a green safety rating, while its toxins are leaching into the Hudson River.  How many times will they miss the boat before it starts to sink?”

As the plant continues to age, the frequency and severity of  problems has intensified:  in 2004-2005, the problems included a drunken guard, improper separation of critical electrical cables, the discovery of faulty insulation that is not fireproof,  repeated failures of the emergency notification sirens, control rods failing to load properly, an improperly sealed shipment of nuclear waste, a nitrogen gas leak that went undetected for 77 days, and a leak of radioactive water containing  tritium, strontium, cobalt, and cesium from Indian Point Spent Fuel Pool 2.  The source of the leak has yet to be identified; remediation has not begun.

The legislation also puts a spotlight on FEMA and DHS, calling for a “detailed explanation of the factual basis” upon which the NRC and FEMA determined that the emergency evacuation plans would protect the public and a detailed response to “each of the criticisms of the radiological emergency plan” as put forth by James Lee Witt Associates.  Since the report’s 2003 release, three of four counties within the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone as well as the New York State Emergency Management Office have withheld their Annual Certification Letters for Indian Point’s emergency plans.

“Last year the nation watched how poorly equipped FEMA and DHS were able to handle mass emergency evacuations of large metropolitan areas with a three day’s warning.  A fast-breaking radiological emergency at Indian Point would provide no warning, leading to devastating consequences for the millions of people living in the region.  On numerous occasions, FEMA, DHS and the NRC have refused to provide any details outlining their decision to approve these plans.  This bill addresses the federal agencies’ slapdash attitude toward public health and safety,” Rainwater concluded.

Under federal law, FEMA must find that there is “reasonable assurance that appropriate protective measures can be taken offsite in the event of a radiological emergency…to adequately protect the public health and safety.” The term “reasonable assurance” is never defined in the regulations.  However, federal agencies are required by law to develop a clear and comprehensive record of the factual information relied upon in their decision-making process.  Agency decisions and findings that are found to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law” by a federal court will be held unlawful and set aside.


About Riverkeeper
Riverkeeper is a member-supported, not-for-profit environmental organization dedicated to safeguarding the ecological integrity of the Hudson River and the watershed areas that provide drinking water to New York City and parts of four upstate counties by tracking down and stopping polluters. Since 1983, Riverkeeper has investigated and brought to justice over 300 environmental lawbreakers. For more information, please visit www.riverkeeper.org.