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Saturday, February 6, 2016
- Over one million kgs of nuclear waste sit in limbo on the banks of the Hudson River, in dry cask storage units and spent fuel pools just 60 kms north of New York City, according to environmental organisations.
The original plan was to bury the nuclear waste in a national repository deep beneath Yucca Mountain, in the southwestern deserts of the U.S. But that plan fell through when President Barack Obama’s administration defunded the project.
Nuclear waste is known for its long-lasting qualities and is often associated with unpredictable health effects that metastasise over many years.
The waste along the Hudson River belongs to Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant run by Entergy Corporation. Indian Point has endured a series of incidents in its 52-year span, including radioactive leaks, transformer explosions and ensuing fires.
Indian Point is classified as a potential target for terrorist attacks, due to its proximity to New York City and to over 20 million residents. It is also located precariously on two fault lines, which led critics to dub it “Fukushima on the Hudson”, in reference to the March 2011 nuclear catastrophe in Japan following an earthquake and a tsunami.
Indian Point made local headlines last week when the U.S. Government Accountability Office produced a report warning residents within a 16 km radius of nuclear operations that in case of a nuclear emergency, those fleeing the area would likely jam evacuation routes.
Indian Point’s two functioning units are up for relicensing in 2014 and 2016, to operate for an additional 20 years.
“If that does go through, they’ll generate approximately an additional (one million kilogrammes) of waste,” said Deborah Brancato, a staff attorney at Riverkeeper, who has been engaged in an ongoing legal campaign to close Indian Point.
Brancato noted that dry cask storage units and spent fuel pools were meant to be temporary solutions to hold nuclear waste, and that they were untested for longtime use.
“The radioactivity in the pool is actually five times the radioactivity at the (plant’s) cores… The pools have a history of leaking radioactive water, so they’re already in a degraded condition,” she told IPS.
Asked how the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – an independent agency established by Congress in 1974 to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials – has approached Indian Point, Brancato said, “They’ve been in lockstep with Entergy and have taken on the same positions.”
She noted that the NRC and the Entergy Corporation have largely ignored environmental concerns associated with Indian Point, even though such concerns were raised by the state and the environmental organisations in the area.
Manna Jo Greene, the environmental action director at the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, told IPS that Indian Point’s routine release of radioactive steam into the air and nuclear waste into the groundwater also pose serious health risks.
“That’s something that needs to be analysed by the NRC and a solution found, but they were punting. They either punt or they give out waivers (citing) existent laws, which are not protective enough,” she argued, explaining that the NRC has taken a “hear no evil, speak no evil” approach to Indian Point’s potential health effects.
“We know that when nuclear power plants shut down, certain cancer rates and thyroid problems decline fairly quickly over time,” she added.
Greene, who has been organising in the Hudson Valley since the civil rights movement, told IPS that the regulatory agencies she works with – such as the Environmental Protection Agency, New York State Department of Health and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation – are usually neutral and nonpartisan.
“But that’s not the case with the NRC,” she argued. “Their comments are sometimes more harsh on the interveners than the companies. They see their mission as to keep the (nuclear) industry going.”
The NRC – lauded internationally for its safety standards – has also been criticised for pandering to the interests of the commercial entities it is tasked to regulate.
Last month, Gregory Jaczko – a former chairman of the NRC – told Nuclear Intelligence Weekly (NIW) that the 103 nuclear plants currently operating across the U.S. should be phased out for health and safety reasons.
According to NIW, Jaczko – who regularly sparred with his four fellow commissioners while at the NRC – resigned from his post in 2012, claiming that he was a victim of a nuclear industry-backed effort to oust him from office.
Greene said, “These (nuclear) industries and NRC staff work on (legal) cases all over the country, and they get to know each other and develop a very cordial relationship.”
She added, “There’s a lot of familiarity… and somewhat of a revolving door between the industry and the oversight agency.”
Nuclear waste and river ecology
Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, told IPS that Indian Point’s nuclear waste –which seeps into the groundwater and drips into the Hudson River – also affects marine ecology.
“Indian Point is not only the most dangerous place in the New York metro area for people, it’s also the most dangerous place for our river creatures,” he noted.
“They suck (10 million kls) of water through that plant every day and destroy one billion fish and other river creatures each year. So that’s gone under the radar to a great extent.”