Indian Point Nuclear Threat Needs Senate Review, Engineers Contend

FILE - In this May 10, 2011 file photo, the nuclear power plant at Indian Point in Buchanan, N.Y., is seen with the Hudson Ri
FILE - In this May 10, 2011 file photo, the nuclear power plant at Indian Point in Buchanan, N.Y., is seen with the Hudson River in the foreground. The risk of an earthquake causing a severe accident at a nuclear power plant is up to 24 times greater than previously believed, according to an AP analysis of preliminary government data, and the nation’s nuclear regulator believes that a quarter of reactors may need modifications to make them safer. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says more than two dozen plants in the eastern and central U.S. may need upgrades because they're more likely to get hit with an earthquake larger than the one their design was based on. It's a belated conclusion; for more than a decade, regulators ignored the evidence of increased quake risks. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

In a letter sent Wednesday, a pair of nuclear engineers -- one of them an employee at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- implored outgoing Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) to use his remaining days as chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs to investigate potential threats at two nuclear power facilities.

Paul Blanch, a retired nuclear engineer and former employee at the Indian Point nuclear power facility in Buchanan, N.Y., and Lawrence Criscione, a risk engineer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission headquarters in Maryland, suggest in the co-authored letter that the Indian Point plant is threatened by unsecured underground gas lines, and that an upstream dam presents heightened risk at the Oconee Nuclear Station in South Carolina.

The engineers suggest that while the nuclear reactors themselves are well-protected, the gas lines and upstream dam are vulnerable to sabotage, engineering failures or damages from natural phenomena like earthquakes. Failures arising from such events could threaten the plants themselves, the engineers argue. The men also suggest that federal officials have been aware of these issues for some time, and that a combination of bureaucratic inertia and official secrecy have prevented the public from adequately assessing the true size and scope of any potential threat.

From the letter:

The potential energy released in a gas line rupture at Indian Point is equivalent to that from a massive conventional bomb; the 2010 explosion and fire in San Bruno, Calif., is an example of the destructive force, which a pipeline rupture can unleash. The flooding resulting from a failure of Jocassee Dam at Oconee would be similar to that experienced at Fukushima following the tsunami. Although the reactors at Oconee and Indian Point are in well-guarded, hardened facilities, the support systems required to keep those reactors from melting down are not nearly as well hardened and are susceptible to extensive damage from either flooding or a natural gas cloud explosion. ...

Although a terrorist attack upon or the random failure of a dam or natural gas pipeline is extremely unlikely, the potential impact of one of these events is the meltdown of multiple reactors, at either Indian Point or Oconee, resulting in severe radiological and economic consequences to areas surrounding these plants. For the natural gas pipeline explosion at Indian Point, New York City and areas extending beyond 50 miles, along with the infrastructures could be rendered uninhabitable for generations.

The engineers also say that both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Homeland Security "have been aware of these potential threats for years and have as yet failed to determine whether any action is needed to prevent or deter these events."

A spokeswoman for Lieberman's office deferred questions about the letter to the Senate committee. Queries to a committee representative for comment on the letter were not immediately returned.

Nuclear engineers are concerned that the Oconee nuclear facility in South Carolina is vulnerable to flooding should an upstream dam fail.

The concerns raised by the two engineers are not new. Blanch petitioned the NRC about the gas lines issue in 2010, and the topic has received wide coverage in the press. Criscione has raised the issue of the flood threat at Oconee with both Congress and NRC leadership, and his concerns were covered in several recent articles in The Huffington Post.

Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, did not respond to specific complaints raised in the letter, but in an email message he said DHS "works closely with public and private sector partners to improve security and resiliency at facilities that contain nuclear or radioactive materials. This includes security assessments, training for owners and operators of nuclear facilities and local first responders, table top exercises, and cybersecurity support and resources."

In previous discussions with The Huffington Post, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell has described the Oconee facility, which is operated by Duke Energy, as safe. "NRC continues to conclude appropriate actions have been taken at Oconee to address potential flooding issues and that the plant is currently able to safely mitigate flooding events," Burnell said in response to questions from The Huffington Post in October.

In an email Thursday morning, Burnell added that the agency had fully reviewed and subsequently denied Blanch's petition on Indian Point in March 2011. "The NRC has reviewed and evaluated the gas pipeline issue," Burnell said. "Our review of the petition found the plant continues to comply with NRC requirements."

He added that the issue of the gas lines was investigated at numerous points in the plant's nearly 50-year history, including in 1968 during initial licensing, in 1995 during a review of potential external events, and again in 2003 and 2008. "These evaluations all concluded a pipeline event would fail to damage safety-related systems or components," Burnell said.

In an email message, Blanch, who has also raised issues at other nuclear facilities, disputed that assertion, arguing that if the gas lines near Indian Point were to rupture and ignite -- either through failure or sabotage -- it would take an hour, given current systems in place, to stop the flow of gas to the lines. "There is no way that all the fire persons in the world can extinguish a gas fire until the gas flow is terminated," Blanch said.

Blanch and Criscione also contend that the public cannot fairly assess agency assertions that their concerns are unfounded because regulators have not publicly released documents relating to their investigations of the threats, citing ongoing terrorism concerns. The engineers argue that this presents an inherent contradiction: If federal regulators have adequately addressed the threats, they say, then there would be no need to withhold documentation from the public.

"We respectfully request that your staff review the enclosures and determine if the nuclear reactor plants involved are adequately secure from attack," the men write in their letter sent to the Senate. "If these plants are adequately secure, then we request that you inform the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it is inappropriate to continue to withhold the safety implications of these concerns from the public under the guise of protecting security. If these plants are not adequately protected, then we request that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shut down these plants until adequate protection is established."