Wald’s lead, however, seemed to indicate the leak was new and the actual date of the leak followed some three sentences later.
The news hook for Wald was that Congressmen Ed Markey (D-Mass) and John Hall (D-NY) had just sent a high pitched letter dated April 30, 2009, to the NRC about the February leak saying “We are shocked that a 1.5 inch diameter hole, leaking at a rate of 18 gallons per minute, could develop without detection.” Undoubtedly this was a serious leak and when Entergy located and plugged up the hole in the corroded, buried pipe, it was estimated that 100,000 gallons of water laced with low levels of tritium had escaped.
The local papers reported on the leak in February but the New York Times did not. Instead, the paper ran a metro brief about Congress calling for an independent safety assessment of Indian Point.
It’s important to note that the New York Times needed a national hook to report the two-month old leak, the “after the fact” has become a growing trend for the “paper of record” and veers away from local coverage, even if it does affect some 30 million people.
Washington usually deals with the issue of nuclear power in the greater context of energy, so the news media gives us less information about potential problems at aging nuclear power plants, such as Indian Point, and how they are being regulated.
The story about the leak is the tip of the iceberg when dealing with inaccessible sprawling networks of underground pipes and cables necessary to run a nuclear power plant. Failures in these systems can come from a variety of things, including age, water damage, earthquake shifting, rats or other burrowing vermin.
Questions to be asked: How does the NRC monitor these underground systems when they can’t see them? Is there a list of inaccessible underground cable systems and pipes showing when they were installed and the rates of failure?
In a letter from the NRC to Entergy dated October 30, 2008, the regulatory group thanks Entergy for supplying some information about how they assess their underground cables.
The NRC also requested the information from other plants including Oyster Creek in New Jersey because of a failed buried cable needed for emergency operation of a diesel generator and from the Palisades Nuclear Plant in Michigan for aging affect that were unmonitored.
The three page letter basically says the NRC has all the information it needs, but at the time, Lochbaum said the NRC asked plant owners only one basic question: it they had buried cables for key systems that might age faster than expected – a good question but too narrow, too focused.
The question that would garner a more detailed response would have been: Are there underground cables or pipes in environments harsher than was assumed that is speeding up the aging process?
Arguments against Entergy’s license renewal application for continued operation of the two reactors has included one made by the NYS Attorney General about old pipes. The AG argues that Entergy does not provide an adequate Aging Management Plan for buried pipes, tanks and transfer canals that contain radioactive fluid. Those contentions are being considered in the re-licensing process.