“The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has defended his agency’s decision not to conduct a special inspection of Indian Point, saying there is already enough oversight of the nuclear power plants.

In a letter to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, Chairman Dale E. Klein said a revamped reactor inspection program is more effective than an “Independent Safety Assessment” because it is continuous, while the special review would be a “snapshot” of conditions at the plants.

“(The) NRC staff is essentially performing the inspection elements of an ISA at each operating nuclear power plant in the country on a routine basis,” Klein wrote Thursday.

Klein sent the letter to Hinchey, the Ulster County congressman who originated a bill last year requiring the NRC to conduct an ISA of Indian Point. Klein also sent copies to Reps. Eliot Engel, D-Bronx, and Nita Lowey, D-Harrison, who co-sponsored the legislation.

Hinchey’s bill and a similar one introduced by U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., failed last year. Updated versions of both bills were reintroduced this week in the new, Democratic-controlled Congress and have received the ceremonial support of the county legislatures of Rockland, Putnam and Westchester.

The ISA is crucial for the public to be comfortable that the Indian Point nuclear power plants operate safely, Hinchey said.

“They are completely fallacious in what they’re presenting as their rationale for not allowing this independent safety analysis,” he said of NRC officials. “They have not engaged in the proper oversight of this facility, and they are apparently incapable of doing so.”

The agency’s oversight is too superficial to provide the in-depth inspection needed, Hinchey said, especially considering there are strontium 90 and tritium leaks at the plants, unplanned shutdowns of the reactor and other operational concerns.

Indian Point officials maintain that an ISA is unwarranted and that the plants are safe. They also think that should such an inspection be required, the plants would perform well, though they are skeptical even an exemplary rating would satisfy opponents.

“We’re saying let’s take a look at this place in a serious way,” Hinchey said. “It needs that kind of examination so that we can have enough information on which to base a kind of decision like that.”

Riverkeeper’s Indian Point campaign director, Lisa Rainwater, said that even if the ISA showed the plants were operating safely, her organization could not support its continued presence in such a densely populated area.

“It’s still the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Rainwater said yesterday.

Entergy Nuclear Northeast, the owner and operator of Indian Point, plans to seek 20-year license renewals for the two working reactors at the site. If the NRC approves those applications, the company could generate electricity there through 2035.

Company officials have said the relicensing process would require more inspection, adding to what is already being done on the radiological leaks.

Hinchey said new leadership in Congress increases the chance that the special review will be required.

Engel said anything short of an ISA is inadequate.

“Now the NRC wants us to trust their judgment in assessing Indian Point,” Engel said. “They claim it is safe while practically every week we hear of another shutdown or another leak.””

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