by Bonita Ng
Our class visit to Indian Point Energy Center reminded me of why I was concerned about the production of electricity in New York in the first place. A few years ago in my AP Environmental class, our professor screened a documentary about coal production in the U.S., titled “Burning the Future: Coal in America”, which centers on mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachian Mountains and its impact on families living nearby the mining sites. The residents of coal towns near the mining sites are afflicted with maladies from asthma to brain tumors caused by widespread air and water pollution. The film revealed the consequences of using coal as an energy source and immediately made me guilty about my own consumption of electricity. Subsequently, after researching about the sources that produce electricity supplied to New York, I found out that only a small percentage of New York’s energy is coal-based, and that most of the energy is actually produced by nuclear energy and burning natural gas (American Coalition For Clean Coal Electricity). This discovery sparked my initial interest in nuclear power as a major energy source in the future for electrical power grids worldwide. Although the U.S. has abundant reserves of coal, these reserves may only “meet the nation’s needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption” according to estimations by scientists from the National Academy of Sciences (“Science Panel Finds Fault With Estimates of Coal Supply”). Nuclear energy may be the temporary solution to our problematic lack of energy sources in the near future especially since the U.S. is currently so dependent on coal as an energy source for producing electricity (coal produces 37% of the electricity within the nation, the highest percentage of that of the other sources of fuel used to generate electricity in the U.S. (U.S. Electricity Energy Information Administration). Yet, to the public, there are so many enigmas surrounding nuclear power.
Nuclear power plants aren’t discussed as often as they should be in the lower grade levels of public schools; I first learned about the schematic infrastructure of a pressurized water reactor in the sophomore year of my high school; and after learning about this system, I was still confused about the functions of the electric generator and water loops, which the course never explained concisely. For instance, I learned that electrical generators spun to produce electricity, but I didn’t know how spinning the generator produced electricity in the first place. Our class visit to Indian Point Energy Center definitely clarified how the pressurized water reactor and its essential parts operated. The core inside the reactor pressure vessel produces heat from nuclear fission, the heat is carried by pressurized water in the primary loop to the steam generator, and steam is formed from heat inside the generator. The steam then spins the turbine, causing a large magnet to rotate inside metallic coils, subsequently producing electricity by induction (“Pressurized Water Reactors”). The lack of classroom material about the technical aspects and functions of pressurized water reactors in public education systems also account for the public fear of the seemingly enigmatic nuclear industry. During a “Q & A” after a presentation about nuclear energy that my classmates presented at the Macaulay Honors College in Lincoln Center, a student asked about the careless spewing of possibly radioactive water coming out from a nuclear power plant. He asked a question that most of the public likely would not know the answer used to. The water spewing out is running through a set of pipes separated from that of the water that actually interact with the core reactors. The water spewing out is used to cool the steam within a pressurized water reactor, so that the steam may condense into water that carry heat into the steam generator.
It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I learned the importance of nuclear energy in political arenas as well. Although our tour guide discussed the plans of the U.S. government to build a repository to place used rod assemblies within it, he did not mention a very important event in legislation of nuclear energy, which I had learned in highschool: the official approval by the U.S. Congress to build a repository for nuclear waste in the Yucca Mountain Desert region, a choice which has been criticized by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, scientists from Harvard University, scientists from the University of Tokyo, and even the former top geologist of the Department of Energy involved in the Yucca Mountain project. These scientists are against the Congress’s decision because the Yucca Mountain does not meet the requirements of the ideal repository of being safe from earthquakes and prone to the possibility of a rising water table for at least 10,000 years. The Yucca Mountain is known as the third most seismically active site in the U.S. and has an abundance of rock fractures and tiny cracks, in which water could leak into and corrode waste storage casks within the flawed repository and carry radioactive waste leaking from corroded containers into groundwater, irrigation systems, and drinking-water wells (Miller 393). The long-distance shipment of nuclear waste from facilities all across the nation also threaten national security due to the difficulty of protecting such loads from possible terrorist attacks. This occurrence underscores the flawed power of politics over science in significant matters regarding the advancement of nuclear energy. Understandably, this incident was not discussed by our tour guide because it would cause the nuclear industry, and Indian Point, to look dangerous.
The Yucca Mountain incident seems to draw parallels to another incident that our tour guide discussed, however. The Strategic Arms Limitation Act and the Carter Act was mentioned as a piece of legislation that greatly impeded the efficiency of the nuclear industry in America by deterring indefinitely the “reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel” due to President Carter’s fear that reprocessing nuclear spent fuel encouraged nuclear weapons proliferation internationally, as the reprocessing would produce plutonium, which is used in nuclear weapons. The President believed that the U.S. could serve as a role model for other nations to stop the reprocessing of nuclear spent fuel. Connecting this example of legislation with the discussion in the last paragraph about the prospects of using Yucca Mountain as a repository for spent fuel, one could see that political decisions largely shape the efficiency of nuclear energy production and safe storage of spent fuel. If the U.S. was allowed to reprocess its fuel, it wouldn’t be in the great dilemma of trying to find a suitable repository and maintaining that repository, as spent fuel would produce more fuel for the reactors and would not accumulate in such massive amounts in a shorter period of time.
The tour at Indian Point has not only revealed to me how a reactor works; it has also revealed to me the self-defeating politics involved in controlling the nuclear industry. In another instance, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) said it would not issue a water permit for Indian Point, needed before the NRC can renew the license [of the plant], until Entergy installed a so-called closed-loop cooling system to avoid killing fish and other aquatic life in the Hudson River” (Disavino). In the tour, it was discussed how, as an alternative, Indian Point built wedge wire devices instead of cooling towers. The cooling towers would have taken 16 years to built, which would cause serious problems for the power plant due to the unlikelihood that the plant would have it’s license renewed on time. The wedge wires only took 4 years to build and saves 89% of fish larvae and effectively prevents larger marine organisms from getting sucked into and stuck in the infrastructure of the power plant which sucks in great amounts of water from the Hudson River everyday. The DEC has made obtaining another license very difficult for Indian Point by insisting on the building of cooling towers. Although cooling towers save 96% of fish larvae, it takes more than a decade longer to build than the wedge wire. This seems to be a ploy to prevent Indian Point from receiving its license. Yet, Indian Point produces 11% of New York State’s electricity. Without a reliable source of energy to power that 11%, New York State would be vulnerable to frequent outages, especially considering the great demand of electricity in the area.
What is disturbing is this widespread political stance against nuclear energy. Although nuclear energy is not a renewable resource, uranium-238 is quite abundant in the environment and actually causes less land disruption from surface mining than coal (Miller 392). Uranium mining is also less harmful to the environment than fracking for natural gas, and, according to the tour guide at Indian Point, a certain amount of uranium is twelve times more efficient than the same amount of coal in producing energy. My theory is that, because nuclear power plants are so expensive to build, maintain, and sanitize in the case of a nuclear disaster, wealthy individuals are not willing to invest in them. The cost of repairing the damages in the aftermath of the Three-Mile Island disaster illustrate this, along with the high cost of building and maintaining a nuclear plant even with government subsidies (Miller 390, 392). Politicians are probably also wary of the potential media and public backlash if they were to outwardly support nuclear energy. Coal is also likely to be depleted in about a hundred years at the current rate of consumption, in contrast to the popular misconception that coal can still be a reliable source of energy for 250 more years (Wald). This is a shame because we will eventually run out of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, which currently makes up 82% of our energy supply, and there will most likely eventually be a time when we must depend mostly on nuclear energy before altering to renewable resources, as uranium is not a limitless source of energy.
Media reports with misleading and/ or confusing information tend to generate even a greater fear of Indian Point and nuclear energy in general within the public domain. Nuclear energy is even more highlighted than some very destructive fuel supplies, such as coal, in the media, due to its relationship to nuclear weapons, the history of inaccurate depictions of nuclear energy in the media, inaccurate news coverage, and possibility of widespread destruction.
Aside from self-defeating policies are false media claims of the security of Indian Point. News publications have cited the vulnerabilities that Indian Point faces in the event of an air attack. NBC news once commented on the tests run on reactor walls identical to those of the containment walls of the pressurized water reactor, in which the reactor core is located (Wells). According to the materials discussed within the lecture of the visit to Indian Point, in a simulation sponsored performed by the Electric Power Research Institute, nuclear containment vessels were shown to be able to withstand impact from a direct hit by a large commercial jet such as the Boeing 767, the same models of two of the larger planes used to attack the Twin Towers during 9/11 (“Indian Pont Nuclear Power Plant—Facing Political Challenges in its Re licensing Bid”). The news channel incorrectly stated in an online article that the type of plane used for the simulation was a F-4 jet, a much smaller plane than the towers used to attack the Twin Towers. This news article was published online after other news sources wrote of Indian Point Energy Center possibly considered as a target by an Al Qaeda ringleader in the instance that the Twin Towers were blocked by bad visibility (“NRC Probes Indian Point Security Lapses”).
Another false media alert seems to be surrounding the controversy of a fault line whose closest point to the nuclear facility is only 5 miles away from the nuclear facility itself. Senator Cuomo has bought this issue up many times as a reason to close the nuclear facility. According to the Indian Point Independent Safety Evaluation, the fault “has not moved in at least the last two million years and is considered to be old, inactive and therefore not a capable fault”.
One major issue in the media concerning Indian Point appears to be the disposal of spent fuel. The public generally does not believe that there is a safe method to store radioactive waste. According to two surveys conducted by MIT in 2002, 64% of the participants did not agree with the statement that “Nuclear waste can be stored safely for many years” (“Ansolabehere”). A similar survey question in another MIT survey conducted in 2007 conveyed that the percentage of participants who did not believe that nuclear waste could be safely stored away for many years rose to about 69%. This is an understandable phenomenon as nuclear waste is obviously highly hazardous and difficult to clean up once improperly released into the environment. Quite certainly, not many of the participants in the MIT survey were acquainted with the nuclear waste storage process that nuclear facilities in the U.S. implement today.
An exaggerated article about leakages from Indian Point, then, can do much to change public opinion on nuclear energy. A recent online article stated that the leakages from Indian Point appears to exceed 30 times the amount of tritium allowed in drinking water. However, this amount is quite innocuous.
It is true that spent-fuel pools are more vulnerable than the metallic containers used in dry cask storage. To clarify, before the spent fuel rod assemblies undergo the dry cask storage process, they are placed in spent-fuel pools due to their high temperature and radioactivity. The spent-fuel pools are filled with water and boric acid, which is a “soluble neutron absorber” that hampers fission within the pool (“Resolution of Generic Safety Issues: Issue 196: Boral Degradation (NUREG-0933, Main Report with Supplements 1-34)”). There have been problems with some of Indian Point’s spent-fuel pools in the past, and this includes leakages from the spent-fuel pools of Unit 1 and Unit 2 within the power plant. Although Unit 1 was subsequently drained in 2008 and its fuel underwent the process of dry cask storage, the workers at Indian Point were not able to fully inspect the watertight metal liner inside the pool of Unit 2, which was suspected of leaking and could not be emptied due to the abundance of highly radioactive products it is carrying. Instead, they repaired several areas of the liner and monitored a “network of sampling wells on the site” to detect and determine whether the leakage was stopped. Investigations into the leakages seeping from Unit 1 and Unit 2 and collections of samples from the wells has revealed that radioactive isotopes such as hydrogen-3 (tritium), strontium-90, cobalt-60, cesium-137, and nickel-63 were leaking into groundwater; however, no drinking sources have been affected. The only instance in which an individual is to be affected by radiation from the power plant is if he/ she consumed fish and shellfish from the Hudson River. In this case, if the consumption is within reasonable amounts, one would consume approximately 0.006 millirem of radiation, which is insignificant considering that, on average, a person absorbs 360 millirems of radiation a year (“Frequently Asked Questions About Indian Point Groundwater Leakage”). Such results from the investigations conducted by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirm that Indian Point Energy Center is safe at least in terms of nuclear waste storage. Currently, there are no leakages from the Unit 3 spent fuel pool.
Still, there are mixed opinions in the media, contributing to the confusion of the public. In another news article, “a study published in a Princeton University scientific journal this spring said a successful terrorist attack on a pool could have consequences ”significantly worse than Chernobyl.” But earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the study was wrong and the pools were not vulnerable” (Wald).
Although my Environmental Science textbook explained the many pros of nuclear energy, including relatively low CO2 emissions, relativity low land usage, and low air pollution, the impressive safety measures of nuclear power plants were understated and other less appealing aspects of nuclear energy security were emphasized. This definitely impacted my primary views on nuclear energy, and I believed that such energy was more disadvantageous than it really was, so even though I became more educated in nuclear energy, I was still skeptical of its safety. My visit to Indian Point definitely changed my perspective on the security of nuclear power plants. The tour guide discussed one very important political issue concerning nuclear energy usage: the storage of nuclear waste. He explained to us the dry cask storage process, in which used fuel which has cooled and cease to release as much radioactive energy as it once did is taken from the spent-fuel pool and placed within metallic or concrete containers (to shield from radiation) enclosed within metal cylinders. Such containers are designed to withstand earthquakes, projectiles, tornadoes, floods, and temperature extremes, and prevent nuclear fission of the spent fuel (“Backgrounder on Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel”). According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, dry storage has released no radiation that affected the public or contaminated the environment since the first casks were loaded in 1986. Looking back at what I had learned in environmental, I realize that the dry cask storage process was discussed, but overshadowed in my mind when I read about a scarier plan drawn up by Congress to build a repository for nuclear waste in a faulty area.
Unfortunately, aside from the faulty news article presented above, there are many others on the web questioning the safety of Indian Point; and the authenticity of these articles are difficult to debate. The public was especially alarmed when newspaper publications announced Indian Point as a possible target considered by one of Al-Qaeda’s ringleaders during the time of the events leading up to the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11 (“NRC Probes Indian Point Security Lapses”). However, it was never confirmed whether Indian Point was even considered to be a target. It is also ironic how a several newspaper publications about the faults of the security systems at Indian Point were released after our class visit of the nuclear facility, in which the advanced defense protocols implemented at the power plant were discussed thoroughly. Indian Point has a perimeter fence surrounding its owner-controlled area, a vehicle barrier system, company security officers working with Naval Militia and the Coast Guard at the waterfront, trained officers of military or law enforcement backgrounds working within the site and advanced firearms. The articles discuss the “falsification of work logs and fitness for duty reports” in which guards had to endure 24 hour watches and sometimes fell asleep on the job, a “faulty perimeter detection system” in which the security at the plant were unable to track the “terrorists” in a drill testing the security of the nuclear power plant, and an “absence of backup power for the internal communications system” which led to a lack of power supply for the system whenever there was a blackout (“NRC Probes Indian Point Security Lapses”). So far, the spokesman for the Indian Point has confirmed time and time again that the security at Indian Point remains strong. However, there is ambivalence surrounding the recent news of these security lapses and they remain to be investigated.
In all, the curriculums in New York public schools and the information disseminated by the media should be revised to inform the public about the truths of nuclear energy, as this power source will most likely be emphasized in the future and still occupies a great percentage of the sources used to generate electricity in New York. The public should also be more informed of the prospects of renewable energy and fossil fuels, as a greater scope of knowledge about energy production and consumption will be crucial to the future of government policies and smarter personal choices. However, uranium is not a renewable energy source and is still limited in supply. It should not be the main energy source considered for the future, as renewable energy has great potential and will probably be necessary in the future.
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