“The past two years at the Indian Point nuclear plant have been a study in contrasts.

The plant has been beset with what company officials call “challenges” – everything from radiation leaks to workers worried that they might be punished for pointing out safety concerns.

Yet the plant’s production of electricity – the juice that runs our everyday lives – has hit all-time highs for the site, and the company announced plans in November to seek license extensions that would allow Indian Point to produce energy through 2035.

“The numbers are no accident,” said Fred Dacimo, who runs Indian Point for the plant’s owner, Entergy Nuclear Northeast. “As the team, we have consistently put forth a tremendous effort to achieve the kind of accomplishments that we have.”

The company has continued to produce 10 percent of the state’s electricity, despite what has seemed like an unending series of plant malfunctions, disruptions and intense public scrutiny.

The latest series of troubles started as far back as the summer of 2005 with wide-scale emergency siren failures and the discovery of a radioactive tritium leak and have continued with an unplanned reactor shutdown as recently as last month

A boiled-down list of the events since 2005 is enough to keep a team of federal regulators busy:

– Emergency sirens that didn’t work for a six-hour period, one of a half-dozen or so malfunctions of a decades-old system that is about to be replaced.

– Two radioactive isotopes – tritium and strontium 90 – leaking from different locations and ending up in tiny concentrations in the Hudson River.

– Seven unplanned shutdowns of the two working nuclear reactors in Buchanan, split about evenly between Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3.

– A cracked fuel rod in the spent-fuel pool of Indian Point 2, which stopped a routine inspection until the uranium could be secured in an unused area of the pool.

– Workers voiced concerns to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about potential retaliation for pointing out safety concerns.

– A worker was exposed to radiation during a repair of the nuclear reactor.

– Debris and ice clogged an intake for cooling Hudson River water, creating a “heightened alert” until adequate flow was restored.

Those were merely the operational issues.

Elected officials’ have continually called for more oversight, as well as the closure of the plants.

One of the laboratories testing radiation levels turned up inaccurate results, and strontium 90 found in Hudson River fish samples – though not definitively from the nuclear plant – has precipitated additional testing.

And a nuclear engineer at Indian Point was placed on leave days before killing his daughter, his wife and himself, raising concerns that he could have taken his rage out at work instead of at home.

Reliable source
Still, the energy provider has remained what state electricity officials say is a stabilizing force for supplying reliable electricity to the densely populated southeastern portion of New York.

“They’ve always been an important part, those two units,” said Ken Klapp, a spokesman for New York Independent System Operator, which controls and operates the state’s grid. “They’re pretty much operating all year long, around the clock, except for a refueling outage. In that area, outside of the city, there’s no large generation north of the city.”

Neither of the two 1,000-megawatt plants in Buchanan is big enough to rank at the top of the state’s list, but together they produce more electricity than any other site in New York.

Klapp says one of the key things in power generation is reliability, and sources such as wind power and other more variable sources are still intermittent in their ability to provide electricity.

“You can’t store electricity,” Klapp said. “You use up what you generate.”

Indian Point officials had hoped to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this month for renewals to continue producing electricity after the current licenses for Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3 expire in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

Dacimo said late last month the application would likely be filed in April.

A cadre of local congressional representatives want to tie that renewal to an in-depth examination of the plant by the NRC and outside evaluators, an independent assessment opponents believe will make the case that the decades-old site has too many operational problems to be extended another 20 years.

Dacimo said the company has spent “hundreds of millions” of dollars since buying the plants in 2001 to make sure that they operate efficiently now and into the future. He said the company was not “deficit-spending” to make those investments.

“There is a marked change now from where these units were eight years ago,” Dacimo said of the site’s two working nuclear reactors. “Unit 3 was a plant that used 65 percent of its capacity eight or nine years ago. Now it’s 97 or 98 percent. We’re running the plants the way the plants are supposed to be run.”

Dacimo acknowledged that the spate of high-profile problems in the past two years have been “challenging.”

“It goes without saying there are a number of areas where we need to continue to concentrate our efforts,” Dacimo said.

‘A streak of bad luck’
David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, monitors Indian Point and other plants for the national watchdog group, and knows the Buchanan site well.

“They have had a series of events,” Lochbaum said. “If you look through what caused those events, there’s no, at least none I’ve detected, situation where there are indications that the company has known about these problems and tolerated them or just put on a Band-Aid fix.”

He said there’s no suggestion that there was some kind of link between all those events, that the plant either wasn’t able to meet the challenges or wouldn’t spend the money to do so.

“It would be troubling if that were the case,” he said. “Absent that, it’s just a streak of bad luck.”

Lochbaum said Entergy’s record for getting the facility to run more efficiently since buying it in 2001 was promising.

“The company did spend a lot more money than they anticipated once they opened up the closet door and found all the problems,” he said.

Lochbaum, a former industry whistle-blower, said the one area that he was especially concerned about was the safety culture at the plants.

“Management has to practically go door-to-door,” Lochbaum said. “You cannot turn that around by proclamation.”

He said executives at Indian Point will need to show workers repeatedly that even the slightest safety issue needs to be cited, so all employees know that the threshold for pointing something out was low.

Lochbaum said the coming relicensing application and public debate will put the plants in a position where the executives will have to explain the recent problems. The intense scrutiny of the public and the media during the problems may end up making the plants safer.

“Because of it being in the fishbowl or being where it is, in some respects, that helps good management,” Lochbaum said.

Keeping close watch
One of the people keeping the plant in the public’s view is Lisa Rainwater of the environmental group Riverkeeper, who heads the campaign to close the nuclear plant.

She wonders why the company won’t just open its doors to an independent assessment. Company officials have said they will comply with whatever federal regulators require.

“It’s a cumulative effect that you continue to have small problems popping up and you have … unplanned shut-downs … that show that the plant continues to age, yet we also have management that has created a work environment in which folks are at least concerned about raising issues of safety,” Rainwater said.

The presence of nuclear waste near the region’s biggest waterway also is a concern.

“We know the pools are leaking and the National Academy of Sciences has said very clearly and strongly, spent-fuel pools are a great risk to the public in the event of a fire or a terrorist attacks,” she said.

One reason company employees have been able to produce under difficult circumstances, Dacimo said, is a collective belief that nuclear energy is part of the overall solution to the country’s energy and environmental needs.

Dacimo said the plants’ production of electricity meets needs that would have to be met by other methods if the nuclear plant didn’t exist, leading to a greater use of oil and coal and more air pollution from those plants.

“Because (our) people fundamentally believe that what we are doing is the right thing, it makes it easier to deal with adversity, whether that’s adversity from the plant or adversity from the external environment,” Dacimo said.”

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