“Entergy gave The Journal News/lohud.com a rare peek inside a nuclear power plant during a refueling of its Unit 3 reactor
Workers in moon suits stand at the edge of a movable platform, carefully angling 12-foot high assemblies of fuel rods stocked with uranium into the depths of a cooling pool that will double as a radiation shield.
Each assembly costs $1 million, holds 204 fuel rods and 49,000 uranium pellets, each pellet the energy-producing equivalent of a ton of coal.
As workers position the assemblies with a hand-controlled pulley, a blue glow comes over the water, what happens when electrically-charged particles move through water faster than the speed of light. It’s called Cherenkov’s radiation for the Russian scientist who discovered it back in 1934 and has been likened to the sonic boom that occurs when a plane exceeds the speed of sound.
Entergy agreed to let a reporter and photographer from The Journal News/lohud inside the power plant to witness the early stages of a refueling last week. The tour provided a rare glimpse inside a working nuclear reactor, one that was in operation for 453 consecutive days since its last refueling.
The fuel rod transfer is the main event in a well-choreographed, $100 million refueling that has become an annual rite of spring at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. The used and spent fuel assemblies will soon take their place beside hundreds of others, remnants of four decades’ worth of energy to homes in Westchester County and New York City.
“We are investing tens of millions of dollars during this refueling and maintenance outage on inspections, maintenance, and equipment upgrades to ensure the plant continues to operate safely and provide economic stimulus,” said Tony Vitale, the top-ranking official at Indian Point for its owner, Louisiana-based Entergy.
Economy will miss this
With Indian Point slated to close in 2021, there are just two more refueling events scheduled for the power plant along the shores of the Hudson River in the Westchester County village of Buchanan.
Timed to coincide with a time of year when energy consumption is at a low, the refueling has become a much-anticipated event, and not just for the work that goes on inside the reactor.
Local businesses have come to rely on the refuelings for an annual infusion of cash. And they are not too pleased that a reliable revenue stream is about to be choked off.
“It’s bad news all around,” said Peekskill Mayor Frank Catalina. “How bad depends on the company. It’s just a terrible situation.”
Entergy announced in January that it would shut down operations at Indian Point, an outcome long sought by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who questioned whether the densely-populated towns and cities near the plant could be evacuated in the event of a mishap.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino criticized Cuomo for moving ahead with a plan to shut down Indian Point without considering the economic fallout for the region.
“The governor is taking away more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, more than $30 million in local tax revenues generated by Indian Point, and more than $1.3 billion in local economic output,” Astorino said. “This plan to close Indian Point puts the economic and environmental future of our region at risk.”
Like a Super Bowl
The refueling will recharge Unit 3, one of Indian Point’s two working reactors, shutting it down while technicians drain water and inspect for deficiencies like worn bolts and, when that’s done, inserting enough new fuel assemblies to keep the reactor going another two years.
For the five or six weeks the project is underway, the towns around Indian Point get their own jolt, in the form of economic activity. Think the Super Bowl, The Master’s or the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Final Four coming to town every year, only on a smaller scale.
When the reactor shuts down, Indian Point’s 1,000-person workforce doubles as an army of out-of-state workers — carpenters, electricians, steamfitters, ironworkers and others — floods into the lower Hudson Valley.
Restaurants, hotels, shops all see a bump in revenue.
The landmark Inn on the Hudson at Peekskill, formerly The Peekskill Inn, receives between 10 and 15 percent of its annual income from Indian Point-related business, offered general manager Doug DelliPaoli. A good chunk of that comes during March and April when the inn’s 53 rooms are booked.
“It hurts,” said DelliPaoli. “I don’t care how much you’re making. It’s going to hurt and we’re going to have to replace it.”
No science fiction flick
To get to the cooling pool, you first pass through a phalanx of security worthy of a maximum security prison.
Along the way there are a series of revolving steel doors, armed security guards, radiation detectors and a science lesson led by Patrick Falciano, who’s been working at Indian Point in one job or another for nearly 50 years.
Falciano describes the difference between radiation and radiological material — dirt or dust. It’s a point he will come back to again and again as he tries to rid us of any ideas about radiation we may have taken away from science fiction movies.
Radiation is energy, Falciano explains. It doesn’t make people glow a bright green, Falciano says.
“It’s not the radiation that can be transferred because that’s just energy,” Falciano says. “But the physical material that’s giving up that energy can be transferred like anything else.”
If a workers’ hands come in contact with radiological material he or she washes his hand in a sink. And not just any old sink but one that leads to a basin that will boil down the water and parse out radiological residue so it doesn’t enter the water supply.
“It’s just like a person who does a dirty job anywhere,” Falciano says. “If a mechanic works on a car, or a painter paints a house, you put on a pair of overalls. And why do they do that? To keep the dirt off their own skin or their own clothing.”
He warns us to keep our hands to ourselves during the time we’re inside the reactor, except when descending stairs, when we’ll need to hold onto handrails.
“That’s the only thing I want you to touch,” Falciano says.
We’ll wear a digital dosimeter attached to a lanyard, which will let us know how much radiation we’ve been exposed to during our stay. Very often, it’s an amount less than what we’d be exposed to by a dental X-ray, Falciano says.
At a radiation checkpoint, dozens of workers come and go, many in hospital scrubs, stopping briefly at computers to see whether their dosimeters have picked up any detectable levels of radiation. They’ll need to pass through a radiation detector before they go back inside the reactor.
Just beyond the checkpoint, up a flight of stairs, is the cooling pool and a heavily fortified, glass-enclosed room where each of the fuel assemblies, glistening like gold ingot, are stored until they’re put to work in the reactor. They were trucked here by flatbed in the weeks ahead of the refueling.
Rolling stones on nuke trail
Workers sport T-shirts and hardhats that hint at the itinerant life of the nuclear power plant worker.
“Hope Creek Generating Station 2016,” reads a T-shirt from the New Jersey nuclear power plant. “Pilgrim 2015,” reads a sticker on a hardhat for the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
There are carpenters from Virginia and Ohio, a nuclear engineer from Pittsburgh and painters from rural parts of Pennsylvania. While they’re here, they’ll work 12-hour shifts six or seven days a week.
Serina Snyder has gotten used to seeing a lot of the same faces during her 14 years of travelling to nuclear facilities, many from upstate Oswego County where she lives.
Snyder spends most of her time at the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Station in Oswego working as a radiation protection technician, making sure workers are dressed properly and not unnecessarily exposed to radiological material.
But, since graduating college with a chemistry degree, she’s done contracting work at most of Entergy’s plants in the U.S, in Louisiana, Michigan and Arkansas. She ticks them off like she’s reading a grocery list.
“I’ve been to all the northern plants,” she said. “Vermont Yankee, Pilgrim, Indian Point, FitzPatrick, Nine Mile. I’ve been to Palisades once and I’ve been to Waterford, River Bend.”
When in town, she likes to stay in quick commuting distance to Indian Point. “I normally stay in Fishkill, something where I can cook so I don’t have to eat out all the time,” Snyder said.
In her down time, she hunts for bargains.
“I usually come down here and go to Woodbury Commons,” she said. “When I’m here, every outage I go shopping.”
The loss of Snyder’s shopping forays will be just a small fraction of the revenue lost once Indian Point shuts down.
A 2012 study by the Business Council of Westchester estimated that the plant’s total payroll is $130 million. It paid another $75 million in annual property taxes and made charitable contributions of $2 million that poured into local communities.
Nearby municipalities estimate they could lose $32 million. The village of Buchanan predicts it could lose $3.5 million annually, nearly half its budget.
The Hendrick Hudson School District could be left with a $20 million hole in its $75 million budget in the coming years. The district currently receives a $23.3 million Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT). But the PILOT payment will be reduced to $2.3 million three years after Indian Point shuts down.
And it’s unclear if Buchanan will ever be able to depend on Indian Point’s 240-acres to generate property taxes. That’s because those fuel rods from the cooling pool will be moved to dry casks on the property after the shut down. Currently, there’s nowhere else for them to go.
In late February, Cuomo said he would create a task force of state and elected officials to come up with a plan to help towns that have relied on Indian Point for their economic lifeline.
“We’re going to lose a lot of high-paying jobs and property taxes,” said John Ravitz, the executive vice president of the Business Council. “There’s a whole host of issues that we are dealing with and our message to the governor is ‘OK, you got your wish, now what?””
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