How a Potential Fukushima Sits 30 Miles from NYC

“We have significant safety issues. We are talking tens of millions of people who could be endangered by releases from Indian Point,” said Blanch.

Claire Bernish  |  The Pontiac Tribune

An explosion at the Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC) — a nuclear plant located a few hundred feet from the Hudson River in Westchester, New York — sent a fireball over 650 feet into the air.

Entergy Corporation, which runs the plant, said the explosion triggered a safe shut down of the Number 3 reactor — though the Number 2 reactor remains in operation. A resulting fire was extinguished by a sprinkler system and on-site fire crews.

Did this make you jump?

In this case, there is no lingering public safety concern, because the explosion happened when an oil-cooled transformer situated roughly 300 feet from the reactor, failed. Though the exact cause is not yet known, transformer failure is a relatively common occurrence in the industry, happening roughly 3 – 4 times a year, according to director of the Nuclear Safety Project, Dave Lochbaum.

But there is something of grave concern scheduled to begin shortly, and its close proximity to the aging nuclear plant — which at one time found itself on the list of the nation’s worst — has largely escaped coverage by the corporate media.

One additional note: IPEC is also located in a seismic zone.

Anyone devoting even passing attention to the Fukushima disaster will surely recognize the eerie similarity.

When contemplating risk, there is an assumption that the factors under consideration will lead to an informed decision in answering the question: Is it worth it?

The Algonquin Incremental Market Project (AIM) is a glaring example of an entire industry hellbent on ignoring that essential question altogether.

So, the AIM Pipeline Has Approval . . . Why?!

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), with approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), gave the green light on plans for Spectra Corporation to construct a 42″, high-pressure natural gas pipeline, which will run through the IPEC facility — less than a quarter mile from the No 2 and No 3 reactors.

But that’s only the beginning of the folly characterizing the AIM pipeline expansion — a project intended to pump fracked shale gas from Pennsylvania into New England.

Spectra, a giant in the natural gas infrastructure industry, has been seeking the addition to its 1,129 mile-long Algonquin Pipeline since 2011. Though the project gained approval, how it managed to do so is a feat that defies logic entirely.

Working with the NRC from its outset, engineer Paul Blanch is a nuclear energy proponent with decades of experience in nuclear safety and federal regulation, and holds security clearance for his job — by all accounts an industry ‘insider’. His take on the AIM project should carry weight:

“I’ve had over 45 years of nuclear experience and safety issues,” Blanch told Truthout. “I have never seen that essentially puts 20 million residents at risk, plus the entire economics of the United States by making a large area surrounding Indian Point uninhabitable for generations. I’m not an alarmist and haven’t been known as an alarmist, but the possibility of a gas line interacting with a plant could easily cause a Fukushima type of release.”

Gas is a volatile, explosive substance, and the pipelines tasked with transporting it are subject to corrosion and neglect — making maintenance and inspection the highest priority. However, a report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in January found operators had

inadequate evaluation of threats which may lead to underestimating the true magnitude of risks to a pipeline,” compounded by inspectors lack training to effectively verify the validity of an operator’s risk assessment.

With that in mind, an increase in the number of ‘incidents’ (read: accidents) in high-consequence areas (HCA) — locations where injury and property damage are likely to occur — really comes as no surprise. And yet, Indian Point could qualify as the area of the highest consequences possible: New York City, with some 20 million people, sits just 37 miles to its south.

Why does this pipeline have approval?

Come on — how bad could it really be?

With the human element on precarious footing, measures like automatic shutoff of the pipeline in case of rupture, leak, or explosion, would seem to be a no-brainer. but these electronic safety features were somehow deemed unnecessary by both FERC and the NRC.

So what is the safety plan?

Spectra will monitor the pipeline from a control room in Houston, some 1,000 miles away, claiming employees could close safety valves within three minutes of noticing a drop in pressure.

According to Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety and regulatory adviser and incident investigator, a three minute shut off for a pipeline of the size and pressure the AIM extension will have, is impossible.

The sheer volume of gas pumping through such lines would shoot out faster than the speed of sound, and multiple explosions are almost certain. In the moments after an explosion, confusion inevitably ensues. Delays in monitoring equipment after such a rupture are likely — and even closing the safety valves could take a minimum of twenty minutes — and then fires can burn long afterward.

In addition, the quantity of gas feeding the fire depends on location of a rupture, and since valves are placed at three mile intervals, a rupture between them would mean three miles of fuel for such a fire. But if a rupture were to occur at the site of the valve, the quantity of  available gas doubles. He explained from experience:

“The tremendous amount of heat flux generated from these high-tonnage release gas transmission pipeline ruptures that have ignited…The higher the heat flux, the longer the duration, the more damage that can occur. I have seen the heat fluxes so high that they will liquefy steel at a distance and vaporize aluminum. I would expect extensive damage to auxiliary equipment such as transmission pipelines and equipment that might be related to fail-safe shutdown of the reactor facilities themselves.”

Though it might seem unlikely, Paul Blanch, the nuclear expert, says the concern is legitimate:

“We have the gas turbine fuel oil tanks that are located in a very close proximity to the pipeline. They hold hundreds, maybe millions of gallons of burning jet fuel oil which would ignite and flow downhill into safety-related structures, including the switchyard, transformers, as well as vital tanks that are used for cooling which are in the high-heat flux and blast radius.” And under these circumstances, the rupture “would disable all emergency generators, and then we have compounding problems. The fire takes out incoming power, and we wind up with no AC power on unit 2. Even backup generators would be inoperable. This scenario is similar to Fukushima. The primary reason they had a meltdown is because they lost all power. Batteries just last so long and they won’t cool the reactor.”

Why does this pipeline have approval?

From the time it became operational on June 26, 1973, the IPEC facility has been plagued with problems.

Two pipelines, circa 1951, run just 600 feet from the plant, and although the Atomic Energy Commission (now NRC) gave assurance at the time IPEC was constructed, that “Failures of these gas lines will not impair the safe operation” — those lines have no maintenance requirements.

Neither the two old pipelines, nor the new AIM installation will require assessment pursuant to re-licensing for the IPEC plant — which is in the works and will grant operation for an additional forty years. Activists, concerned citizens — even Gov. Andrew Cuomo — have made an exhaustive effort to have the facility shut down, without success.

Now back to risk assessment.

To evaluate the AIM project, Entergy hired a one-time employee of one of the plant’s former owners who submitted his assessment to the NRC in August 2014. That report was so flawed, that just one month after it was made public in October, Blanch petitioned the NRC to “take enforcement action” against Entergy for “providing inaccurate and incomplete information” to the commission — and demanded an explanation from the company.

In his petition, Blanch wrote:

“My research questions the qualifications and his knowledge of risk assessment, Nuclear Regulations and natural gas transmission failures.”

Kuprewicz called the assessment “seriously deficient and inadequate”, and in a letter to Blanch — included with the petition — he elaborated:

“Entergy’s contains numerous errors that are either an attempt to deceive decision makers, or reflect an incredible lack of pipeline experience, in appreciating the real risks associated with a large 42-inch gas transmission pipeline rupture in a very sensitive area,” and smaller pipelines have different risks, “and any attempt to dismiss such a large pipeline as similar extremely irresponsible.”

Why does this pipeline have approval?

One of the most glaring flaws in the risk assessment on which approval was given, pertains to modeling based on an outdated EPA computer program called ALOHA, which couldn’t account for the type of rupture likely to happen with a 42″ pipe. Using this program for the assessment in this case was even prohibited by the EPA, itself, because, as the agency stated, it “cannot model gas release from a pipe that has broken in the middle and is leaking from both broken ends.”

But perhaps the most egregious, and consequently the most dangerous, error, is a calculation derived from the chance of total pipeline rupture, which the NRC gave just a 1% chance of occurrence — despite accompanying documentation that clearly puts the risk at 20%. Based on the much smaller figure, the official risk assessment states that the odds for pipeline rupture to trigger a nuclear meltdown fall within NRC guidelines, at 7 in 100 million years. Blanch recalculated, accounting for pipeline size, velocity of gas streaming through, and the higher and accurate total rupture risk of 20%.

In actuality, a nuclear meltdown would be triggered one in every 1,000 years, which, as he states, is “an unacceptable probability and a clear violation of NRC regulations.”

“We have significant safety issues. We are talking tens of millions of people who could be endangered by releases from Indian Point,” said Blanch.

Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand called for a “thorough, independent review of all the projects potential impacts”, as have Rep Nita Lowey and NY State Assemblywoman Sandy Gelaf.

But FERC ignored all of these requests, siding with the NRC’s approval based on the horribly flawed assessment by Entergy.

Though FERC describes itself as “independent,” it sides with the industry the majority of the time. In this case, FERC appears to have completely lost touch with the reality of such an incredibly risky situation. Blanch explained how preposterous this project is, when considering its close proximity to New York City:

“The potential energy released in one hour from these corroding 65-year-old gas lines and the newly proposed 42 inch line is equivalent to a small atomic bomb or about 30 million pounds of TNT. (Putting this in perspective, a fully loaded 747 weighs about one million pounds.) All of this within 600 feet of the reactor and more than 40 years of spent fuel. We wouldn’t allow a TNT factory in the vicinity of a nuclear plant, so why would we even consider major gas transmission lines crossing the nuclear site? Stop this insanity now.”

So, why does this pipeline have approval?

(Feat. Image: Twitter/@GustavusHimself)

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