By Marilyn Elie, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition
Indian Point is closing and the next step is cleaning up the mess. Decommissioning a nuclear reactor is a huge, messy, potentially dangerous process. As with any big deconstruction job there is a temptation for contractors and owners to cut corners and maximize profits. Supervision from authorities can be lax. The primary concern of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is what happens inside contaminated buildings. Local officials already have a lot on their plate contending with redevelopment. The New York State Task force on Indian Point goes out of business when Unit 2 closes. A local Task Force has been established by the Supervisor of Cortlandt but their purview is mostly replacing tax revenue. So who will watch the store?
Needed: A Citizens Oversight Board
We need a legislated oversight board of knowledgeable citizens representing all of the stakeholders involved in closing Indian Point – a Citizens Oversight Board. By holding meetings once a month, reading reports and knowing the regulations, knowledgeable members of a Citizens Oversight Board could keep up with what is happening during the cleanup. Reports from the decommissioning company and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can be difficult to comprehend. A COB could translate them into language that everyone could understand and use to take appropriate actions. An Oversight Board could hold public meetings and listen to what the community wants and needs and then make recommendations to guide the process to protect people and the environment from exposure to radiation over the decades that high level waste will be stored at Indian Point.
High level radioactive waste cleanup
High level radioactive waste will be stored at Indian Point for untold years. Deciding who is going to oversee it and report back to the community is a problem that needs to be solved now. While a lot of the waste like contaminated tools and uniforms are low level waste, there are over 1,000 tons of high level radioactive waste on site from the many fuel assemblies that were used to power the reactors since the opened 40 years ago. This waste is deadly for over 24,000 years, the half-life of plutonium. The fuel assemblies are lethal for a much longer period as radioactive elements continue to decay. Most of the used fuel assemblies are in the fuel pools at Unit 2 and Unit 3. Some are entombed in steel canisters sitting inside massive concrete pillars on dry land. Transferring the assemblies from water to land requires knowledge and care. The closing agreement stipulates that the company will move enough fuel assemblies for three dry casks per year from the pools to dry land. Unless this changes, just putting the used fuel assemblies into dry cask storage will take decades. There is no other place to send this material – no community wants to accept it. Transporting it is dangerous. We created it and enjoyed its benefits and it is now ours to keep and take care of.
The Decommissioning Fund
Who pays for all of this? There is a decommissioning fund that rate payers have contributed to over the years through their electricity bills. No one knows for sure if it will be enough. While it meets the Nuclear Regulatory Commission generic standards there is a worrisome pool of radioactive water under the reactor buildings. Remediating it is a problem that has not even been discussed yet. As anyone who has ever dealt with renovating an old building knows, many surprises lurk behind the walls and underneath floors and few of them are pleasant. How the contractor will spend the money from the decommissioning fund and what they will use it for is an open question. In Vermont the company was using it to pay taxes, not for cleanup. A Citizens Oversight Board could help oversee unwarranted expenditures like this, keep the public informed an aware of what needs to be done and how much money remains to do it.
Who is in charge?
Many automatically assume the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be in charge and enforce standards. In reality their supervision during cleanup is limited. They are mostly concerned with what happens inside the contaminated buildings. The Environment Protection Agency will be involved although given the cut backs in regulations it is difficult to know how effective this might be. Other agencies on the federal and state level will be involved over the years. Based on computer modeling the casks are predicted to last only 300 years, what happens after that is unknown. Tracking all this and making sense of the varying standards and requirements is a job the Citizens Oversight Board could do for the public good.
There is no good solution to the problem of storing high level radioactive waste. We can only stop producing it, contain it and continue to monitor it. The stop dates are in place; Unit 2 will close in 2020 and Unit 3 will close in 2022. It is now time to work on how to monitor this waste so that it does not pose a threat to our community. Creating a local, legislated body to track what happens, keep records, investigate new technologies for radioactive waste disposal and suggest ways to implement them is a logical first step. A volunteer Citizens Oversight Board would consist of knowledgeable citizens with access to experts. They would meet once a month to read reports, watch what the decommissioning company is doing, hold meetings to inform the public, prepare reports and make recommendations for the Governor and other levels of government. Some community members would be elected, some would be appointed from the communities surrounding Indian Point. You can read the draft legislation at www.ipsecinfo.com.
What can I do?
The Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition will be taking our proposed bill to State Legislators this fall in hopes of a quick passage. Legislators are busy people and not all of them are familiar with this idea yet. They need to hear from their constituents. If you think that this is a good idea we welcome your help in contacting your state legislator to discuss it. If you are not sure about the need for a Citizens Oversight Board or would like more information, call us at 1-888-474- 8848 and leave a message. We will get back to you right away to discuss your concerns.
This is an important project facing our community. Indian Point must be returned to the green field it once was and that the regulations require. High level radioactive waste must be isolated from the environment and stored securely. We all need to be involved and active in establishing a Citizens Oversight Board to make sure this happens properly for the sake of public health and safety and a clean and green Hudson River Valley.
Don’t know who your legislator is? Go to www.elections.ny.gov to find out. Then go to their web site and leave a note, send an email, or best of all, call and speak to a staff member. Let them know how important this issue is and ask for their support. Act now!