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How to Close a Nuclear Power Plant

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A Q&A With Phillip Musegaas, Riverkeeper Hudson River Program Director

To continue to operate its Indian Point nuclear reactors on the Hudson River 35 miles from Midtown Manhattan, Entergy needs a water quality certificate from New York State. Riverkeeper is currently arguing before an administrative law judge in Albany that Indian Point has been in violation of state water quality laws and that its proposed solutions won’t stop massive damage to the Hudson River ecosystem that has cost a billion fish, eggs and other aquatic life every year since Indian Point began operating, nearly 40 years ago. We spoke with Riverkeeper’s Hudson River Program Director Phillip Musegaas for an update.

In the first two weeks of testimony, Riverkeeper argued that Entergy’s plan to use “cylindrical wedgewire screens” would not protect fish from being sucked into cooling water intakes. As we have for decades, Riverkeeper believes any “once-through” technology like this is inferior to closed-cycle cooling that recycles water and stops 97% of fish kills. What is at stake for the river in this?

This goes back to our origins when we started as a fishermen’s organization. Bob Boyle and commercial fishermen were involved in fighting to have Indian Point built with closed-cycle cooling. We’ve been fighting delays ever since. Once-through cooling with wedgewire screens would not reduce the impacts to Hudson River fish nearly as well as a closed–cycle system, and it doesn’t get rid of the discharge of billions of gallons of hot water a day, which also damages the river ecosystem. Ten out of 13 key Hudson River fish species are in decline – including American shad, white perch and blueback herring – and we know that Indian Point directly contributes to that overall decline. It really goes to the heart of environmental issues on the Hudson River: How do we protect and restore the Hudson River ecosystem for everyone’s benefit, as opposed to damaging it just for Entergy’s benefit? Entergy is avoiding the cost of closed-cycle cooling by using the river for free.

Riverkeeper hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with government regulators on this issue, but for nearly 10 years, and in the current hearings, we’re arguing alongside New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. How much of a difference does that partnership make?

One of the things that make this Indian Point hearing unique is that Riverkeeper and the state are on the same side in our conviction that closed-cycle cooling is the only technology that will protect the environment and comply with the Clean Water Act. Legally, when the state makes the determination to deny a water quality certificate as in Entergy’s case, it’s very hard for Entergy to overturn. Entergy has a real uphill battle.


Next up in the hearings: radiation leaking from Indian Point. What will Riverkeeper be arguing?

We are arguing that radioactive water leaks from Indian Point spent fuel pools combined with the allowable releases of radiation from the plant into the river violate the state’s water quality standards. We know there are numerous leaks, some that have been ongoing since at least the early 1990s. There are plumes of radioactive water underground and leaking into the Hudson River, and because of the plant’s degraded condition, there will be more and more leaks. The solution would be to inspect every part of the plant to find the leaks, stop them and install a system to pump the contaminated groundwater. The ultimate solution would be to close the reactors and decommission the site, so that impacts on the Hudson River from Indian Point are stopped for good.

What are the other key issues we’ll be arguing in the weeks ahead?

The hearings are expected to continue into next spring. The next issue would be what type of closed-cycle cooling system could be built at Indian Point. Entergy makes the argument that the only type that would work would be a Yankee Stadium-sized cooling tower that would be an eyesore, and that the cure is worse than the disease. We disagree and believe there are a number of alternatives that would work equally well and have less visual impact. We’ll also be arguing over the issue of whether Indian Point affects the shortnose sturgeon, an endangered species. And we’ll be arguing about the legality and impact of hot-water discharges from the plant.

Once the arguments are done, the administrative law judge will reach a decision and send it to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens, who will make the final decision. Our best guess is that the decision will be made sometime around the end of 2012, and the decision could be appealed in state court.

Finally, this is just the first set of hearings that will pit Riverkeeper against Entergy. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will decide whether to grant Entergy’s application to keep its two reactors running for another 20 years, after hearings set to begin in spring of 2012. The country has never seen hearings like these before. What is historic about them?

It’s an historic case because it’s the first time a state has opposed relicensing. The Attorney General of New York is on our side. And it’s historic because of the number of issues that the NRC will consider. We have 16 different issues that will be heard, ranging from nuclear engineering to safety and environmental concerns.

You can do your part to help by donating to Riverkeeper’s Close Indian Point Campaign.