Every exposure to radiation increases the risk of damage to tissues, cells, DNA and other vital molecules. Each exposure potentially can cause programmed cell death, genetic mutations, cancers, leukemia, birth defects, and reproductive, immune and endocrine system disorders. There is no safe threshold to exposure to radiation.
Government regulations allow radioactive water to be released from Indian Point nuclear power plant to the environment containing “permissible” levels of contamination. However, since there is no safe threshold to exposure to radiation, permissible does not mean safe.
It doesn’t take an accident at the Indian Point nuclear power plant to release radioactivity into our air, water, and soil. As a matter of regular operation, radiation is released from Indian Point in the form of liquid, gaseous, and solid radioactive wastes. Solid radioactive wastes include laundry (considered low-level waste) and irradiated spent fuel (considered high-level waste.)
Each reactor routinely emits relatively low-dose amounts of airborne and liquid radioactivity. This radioactivity represents over 100 different isotopes only produced in reactors and atomic bombs, including Strontium-89, Strontium-90, Cesium-137, and Iodine-131. Humans ingest them either by inhalation, or through the food chain (after airborne radioactivity returns these chemicals to earth).
Each of these chemicals has a special biochemical action; iodine seeks out the thyroid gland, strontium clumps to the bone and teeth (like calcium), and cesium is distributed throughout the soft tissues. All are carcinogenic. Each decays at varying rates; for example, iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days, and remains in the body only a few weeks. Strontium-90 has a half-life of 28.7 years, and thus remains in bone and teeth for many years.
These chemicals are different from “background” radiation found in nature in cosmic rays and the earth’s surface. Background radiation, while still harmful, contains no chemicals that specifically attack the thyroid gland, bones, or other organs. Indian Point ranks among the top emitters with respect to radioactive releases over the years it has operated.
Radioactive releases result from plant accidents and accidents happen. On February 15, 2000, IP-2 suffered a ruptured steam generator tube that released 20,000 gallons of radioactive coolant into the plant. The incident resulted from poor plant maintenance and lax oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The accident, a stage 2 event, triggered a radioactive release to the atmosphere. The NRC gave the plant its worst rating because of the previous plant operator’s failure to detect flaws in a steam generator tube before the February 2000 leak. One week after the accident, 200 gallons of radioactive water were accidentally released into the Hudson River.
Since at least August 2005, radioactive toxins such as tritium and strontium-90 have been leaking from at least two spent fuel pools at Indian Point into the groundwater and the Hudson River. In January 2007 it was reported that strontium-90 was detected in four out of twelve Hudson River fish tested.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission relies upon self-reporting and computer modeling from reactor operators to track radioactive releases and their projected dispersion. A significant portion of the environmental monitoring data is extrapolated – virtual, not real.
However, radioactive releases from Indian Point’s routine operation often are not fully detected or reported. In fact, accidental releases may not be completely verified or documented.
And, they occur throughout the nuclear fuel cycle, which includes uranium mining, uranium milling, chemical conversion, fuel enrichment and fabrication, the process by which electricity is generated at plant via controlled reaction, and the storage of radioactive waste, both on-site and off-site.
Finally, radioactive by-products continue giving off dangerous radioactive particles and rays for enormously long periods – described in terms of “half lives.” A radioactive material gives off hazardous radiation for at least ten half-lives. One of the radioactive isotopes of iodine (iodine-129) has a half-life of 16 million years; technetium-99 has a half-life of 211,000 years; and plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. Xenon-135, a noble gas, decays into cesium-135, an isotope with a 2.3 million year half-life.
Indian Point has one of the largest quantities of irradiated (or “spent”) fuel in the northeast. While plant owners in other countries such as Germany are implementing more robust measures (i.e., hardening facilities) to protect the irradiated fuel onsite, there is inadequate protection for this irradiated fuel in the U.S.
There is currently no approved national repository to begin removing it from temporary spent fuel pools located on-site at Indian Point and other U.S. nuclear power plants across the country. Approximately 1500 tons of spent fuel is currently stored in densely packed pools at Indian Point. No containment structures exist over the spent fuel pools; the pools are vulnerable to a loss-of-coolant scenario; mock attack drills reveal accessibility to and vulnerability of spent fuel buildings; and two of the spent fuel pools at Indian Point have been leaking radioactive materials.
Entergy plans to transfer some of the older spent fuel into dry casks include placing over 50 casks on a concrete pad with no protective barriers or containment structures. An NRC official, industry whistleblowers, and nuclear safety watchdogs have raised concerns about design flaws with the cask model to be used at Indian Point and about the company’s inadequate quality assurance program.
Since at least August 2005, radioactive contaminants such as tritium and strontium-90 have been leaking from Indian Point’s spent fuel pools into the groundwater and the Hudson River. Entergy and the NRC have not been able to identify the source of the leaks, determine the extent of the leaks, or develop a realistic plan to stop them. NRC has pledged to continue heightened oversight at Indian Point due to the leaks and Entergy’s delays in installing new emergency sirens.
On January 16, 2007 the Journal News reported that four of twelve fish samples taken from the Hudson by Entergy showed detectable levels of strontium-90 in their flesh, raising new concerns as to the level of environmental damage caused by the leak of radioactive water containing strontium-90 from the Indian Point 1 spent fuel pool.
Of the four showing higher levels, one was collected near Indian Point, and the other three near the Newburgh-Beacon bridge, about 15 miles north of the plant. Riverkeeper immediately called on state and federal regulators to broaden their sampling program, so that a better picture of the extent of contamination could be ascertained. This toxic radionuclide, known as a “bone seeker” because it mimics calcium and concentrates in bone, can cause leukemia and bone cancer if ingested in high amounts.
Despite Entergy’s claim to the contrary, Indian Point is known to be at least one source of strontium-90 in the Hudson, and the only one currently known to be discharging this toxic substance into the river. Low levels of strontium-90 remain in the global environment from nuclear weapons testing during the 1950s and 60s, and the Knolls Atomic Laboratory dumped radioactive waste into the Mohawk River near Schenectady during the same time period. The Mohawk is a tributary of the Hudson.
The Indian Point nuclear power plant has a long history of accidental radioactive leaks and spills: spent fuel pools at the plant housing toxic nuclear waste have been leaking since the 1990s; corroded buried pipes have sprung radioactive leaks; tanks have spilled hundreds of gallons radioactively contaminated water; and malfunctioning valves and pumps have leaked radionuclide-laden water. [Indian Point Radioactive Leaks Timeline] As Indian Point continues to age and degrade, more inadvertent radioactive leaks are inevitable.
On April 18, 2006, Riverkeeper announced its intent to sue Entergy Nuclear Northeast for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), arising from the leaks of radioactive water at Indian Point. The leaks were first discovered nearly a year before and have since polluted the groundwater at the plant and are leaching into the Hudson River.
RCRA is a federal statute that addresses the storage and treatment of hazardous waste, including radioactive materials stored in underground storage tanks, such as the spent fuel pools at a nuclear power plant. The law requires operators of facilities with such tanks to notify the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when they discover a leak of hazardous substances, such as radioactive isotopes, from their facility. After notification, the facility owner must stop the leak, determine the level of environmental contamination, and make plans remediate the pollution in a timely manner.
Entergy Nuclear failed to notify EPA when they discovered the leak of contaminated water from the Indian Point 2 spent fuel pool, thereby avoiding the involvement of EPA in the leak investigation and remediation process. Under RCRA regulations, EPA retains regulatory authority over waste storage tanks containing radioactive materials, despite the nearly exclusive jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regarding the operation of U.S. nuclear power plants.
Riverkeeper filed the notice letter under the “citizen suit” provisions of RCRA, which mandates a 60-day waiting period before the lawsuit is filed. We were joined by two local residents who have lived near the Hudson and recreated on the river for many years, and are concerned about the long term threat to their health and the environment posed by this ongoing pollution. Entergy disputed our claims and threatened to sue Riverkeeper and our co-plaintiffs for filing a “meritless action.”
The filing of this letter followed a strong response by a group of New York Congressional leaders in March, 2006. Congressmen Eliot Engel (D-NY and Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), joined by Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, decrying the leaks as the latest “environmental assault” on the region caused by Indian Point and demanding that the agency initiate its own investigation. Congresswoman Sue Kelly of New York sent her own letter to EPA, mirroring the demands made by her colleagues.
The agency responded with a letter from Alan J. Steinberg, the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 2, which includes New York. In this letter, Steinberg dismissed the call for an EPA investigation, citing the agency’s confidence that “the agencies responsible for handling this matter are capable of doing the job well and are proceeding appropriately.” He based his decision on the assertion that the agency has “limited authority to regulate radionuclide emissions or discharges from nuclear power plants during their routine operations.”
But, the leaks from the spent fuel pool are not “routine operations,” and Mr. Steinberg’s assertions were flatly contradicted by the EPA’s own regulations implementing RCRA, which describe a narrow area of nuclear power plant operations that fall under the agency’s jurisdiction.