Published May 10, 2011
As public concern over a "Fukushima-type event" continues to fester in the communities surrounding New York's Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, local lawmakers and federal officials are keeping a vigilant eye on the double-domed plant that sits along the Hudson River.
Today, Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will tour the Indian Point site in Buchanan, N.Y., along with Representatives Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who have both been critical of the plant.
The NRC visit comes ahead of the agency's 30-day briefing on the review of the Fukushima disaster for lessons that can be applied here in the U.S. On Thursday, three New York State senators will hold a public meeting regarding the safety of Indian Point, located approximately 30 miles from New York City.
It takes a lot of planning and security checks to get the green light from Entergy, which operates the plant, to take a look inside the tightly guarded facility. Just last week, Entergy gave Fox News access to Indian Point for a firsthand look at the safety measures in place to protect the public in the event of natural disasters or acts of terrorism.
"What happened in Japan can't happen here," said spokesman Jim Steets.
Fox News cameras were allowed inside many key areas of the plant, including the much talked about spent fuel pool area, diesel generator vaults, turbine room and the massive control room simulator, where a training exercise was going on the day of our visit.
The control room simulator is an exact replica of a real control room, right down to the color of the carpet, and it’s in the control room where all the power-generating action is monitored 24/7.
The simulator is like many others in place at nuclear power plants across the U.S. Simulators became mandatory for all plants to have on their premises following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. They are used to train operators for disaster.
Jerry Nappi, communications manager at Entergy Indian Point Energy Center, served as tour guide of the sprawling 250-acre site, and said the control room simulator is an integral and constant part of operations.
“One of every five weeks an operator spends in training, either in a classroom setting or the actual simulator, and they're given tests by the federal government. If they don't pass that test, they can't go back to work," Nappi said. "They're trained on very extreme scenarios so that in the unlikely event they do occur, they know how to respond."
Deep in the plant, beyond several layers of security that include armed guards, countless cameras and fiercely wound barbed wire high atop motion-detecting chain-link fences, are the containment domes, perhaps the most identifiable part of the plant. Inside, at the bottom of the massive, hollowed-out, steel-reinforced concrete caps are the reactors, which hold the fuel that undergoes the fission process. That process heats the water to make steam, and that steam turns the turbines to make electricity.
When both reactors are in use at the same time, 2,000 megawatts of power is generated to the power grid inside the massive turbine room. On average, the turbines supply 25 percent of the electricity used by Westchester County and New York City.
After about six years of use, the uranium fuel is transferred to spent fuel pools, inside the fuel storage building. The pools are built into bedrock with walls made of steel-reinforced concrete. The pool itself is about 30 feet by 30 feet and 40 feet deep, filled with water that looks like what you would see in a regular swimming pool. It is aqua blue from a distance, and appears clear and illuminated with lights underneath.
All of the spent fuel that's been used at Unit 3 since 1976 was in the spent fuel pool our team had access to, which is under about 25 feet of water. It not only helps keep the fuel cool, but also provides protection from harmful radiation.
Standing along the side of the pool with large wood barricades to keep people a safe distance away from the edge, Nappi explained the construction.
"We're looking through about 25 feet of water at the top of the fuel assemblies, which sit at the bottom of the pool. This pool is built on bedrock, so they blasted down to the bedrock level, they poured 6 feet of reinforced concrete,” Nappi said. “Around all four sides of the pool is another 6 feet of steel reinforced concrete, so it's an incredibly strong structure built to withstand incredible forces."
There is a very intricate and thorough process one must go through to enter the spent fuel pool rooms.
First, you are given two types of dosimeters to wear on your body, one that internally tracks the levels of radiation you were exposed to. That dosimeter is then scanned into a computer with your name on it to keep in the Indian Point system for record keeping. The other looks like a pager type device with a screen that shows you starting out at 0.00 millerem exposure, and then will go up depending on how much you are exposed to. This is a way to give the user "real time information" about any dose you might receive.
At the end of the tour, the Fox News team averaged about 0.2 millerems on our dosimeters, which is well within the acceptable daily exposure range.
One aspect of the plant, which operators continue to advertise, is their redundant power systems in place to keep things running in case of a blackout, earthquake, flood or attack. There are three backup diesel generators encased in concrete bunkers that Entergy officials say are ready at a moment’s notice.
"We only need one to keep the fuel cool, but we have three in redundancy,” Nappi explained. “At another location there's a fourth one, and in addition to that there's a portable steam generator that was added after 9/11."
There are more improvements coming, according to plant operators.
In the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, change is anticipated. Joe Pollock, vice president of operations at Indian Point, says the plant is taking a close look at Japan's incident.
"Once we understand how they responded, how the plant responded, we'll change the way we do business in the U.S.,” Pollock said. “I can't tell you what that looks like right now, but I'm quite sure we'll look at other redundancies and backup systems that we'll put in place."
Pollock adds they have already made plans to order an additional portable backup generator and to keep sandbags on site in case of massive flooding.