By Brian PJ Cronin

The days of test sirens and iodide pills are over.

On Oct. 24, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced that it had approved a request by Holtec, the company decommissioning the Indian Point nuclear power plant near Peekskill, to abandon the emergency response plan created when the plant was operational.

The approval comes a week after Holtec said it had completed transferring the plant’s spent nuclear fuel rods into dry casks.

The NRC said in 2022 that it had concluded that, with the spent fuel in storage and less radioactive than it was 15 months earlier, when the last of three reactors was shut down, “the risk of an off-site radiological release is significantly lower, and the types of possible accidents significantly fewer.”

Practically, the NRC ruling means that:

  • Evacuation plans, including the routes of emergency buses to Brewster and Carmel (schoolchildren would be sent to Kent), will no longer be distributed to households within 10 miles of the plant, including in Philipstown. The 2020-22 edition of the Are You Ready? emergency booklet will be the last produced by Putnam, Westchester and Orange counties.
  • The Putnam County Bureau of Emergency Services has stopped distributing potassium iodide (KI) pills, which block radiation from entering the thyroid gland, and local public schools will no longer send permission slips to allow nurses to give KI pills to students during an emergency.
  • An emergency hotline from Indian Point to the Westchester county executive can be disconnected.
  • The quarterly siren tests in Philipstown and elsewhere within the 10-mile radius will be discontinued. In an emergency, the sirens would alert residents to turn on their radios or TVs for instructions.

Emergency guide cover

Holtec’s request to drop the emergency plan drew criticism from the state’s Indian Point Decommissioning Oversight Board, but Holtec insisted that there was nothing unusual about the change. In 1999, the NRC identified 34 sections of its regulations that don’t apply to nuclear plants that have been permanently closed, although the agency has not taken any formal action to remove them.

A map from the 2022 Indian Point emergency plan shows "protective action areas." The population within the 10-mile radius is about 324,000 people.
A map from the 2022 Indian Point emergency plan shows “protective action areas.” The population within the 10-mile radius is about 324,000 people.

As a result, every firm that is decommissioning a plant must ask the NRC for an exemption. Holtec says it was having to needlessly follow overly stringent regulations that added time and cost to the decommissioning.

New York State formally objected to the exemption request in January, arguing that while the NRC usually grants the exemptions, Indian Point is unlike other shuttered plants because it is in a highly populated area. They also noted that mishaps at other nuclear plants that Holtec is decommissioning “raise questions about whether this facility and this owner in particular warrant this exemption.”

The state asked that any exemptions not go into effect until all the plant’s nuclear fuel had been placed into dry casks. The NRC effectively honored that request “by waiting until the fuel was in dry cask storage before granting the exemption,” a representative of the Decommissioning Oversight Board said Tuesday (Oct. 31).