Red Flags Raised Over Radioactive Waste at Indian Point Plants

Left to right, John Sullivan, Marilyn Elie, Margot Frances, Manna Jo Greene and Jeanne Shaw, members of the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, in front of an inflatable, life-size nuclear waste cask last week. Abby Luby Photo

The closure and dismantling of Indian Point plants 2 and 3 in 2020 and 2021, respectively, have raised red flags about the storage and handling of more than 1,700 tons of dangerous radioactive waste.

At a public meeting last Wednesday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) answered questions about the decommissioning process. About 90 people crowded into the Morabito Community Center in Cortlandt to ask Bruce Watson, NRC chief of the reactor decommissioning branch, about the regulatory agency’s oversight role during the plant closures.

For three hours, many were frustrated with the unreliable audio system that made it difficult to hear the speakers. A major concern was about Holtec International, a family-owned corporation based in Camden, N.J., slated to purchase, dismantle Indian Point and manage the irradiated nuclear fuel. Although Holtec has more than 30 years’ experience handling radioactive waste, it has come under scrutiny for fast-tracking decommissioning of nuclear plants.

Holtec proposes to dispose of the waste in as little as eight years; the NRC allows 60 years for the process.

“Holtec is a company with a record of bribery, lies and risk-taking. We know the NRC allowed the company into plants in New Jersey and Massachusetts even before objections by citizens’ groups were heard,” charged Richard Webster, legal director for Riverkeeper.

“Can you describe the NRC’s role in approving and selecting companies like Holtec for decommissioning?” asked Peekskill City Councilman Colin Smith during the meeting.

Watson replied that the agency is not privy to contractual details or sale agreements.

“Our sole responsibility is to ensure the applicant is licensed and has the technical and financial ability to own a particular plant,” he said.

When Smith asked for an estimated timeline for transporting the spent fuel rods, Watson said, “Congress promised to take care of high-level waste when they encouraged all these plants to be built. It’s in their ballpark to facilitate the disposal of the spent fuel. It’s way below my pay grade to make that kind of policy. I wish I had an answer for you.”

NRC’s oversight role with Holtec directly ties into the formation of Community Advisory Boards (CABs) as stipulated in a federal law under the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. Watson indicated that the NRC would be checking in regularly with the progress of the decommissioning, but acknowledged that a heavier oversight role would be put on the Community Advisory Boards.

Many have questioned the authority of the newly formed local CAB, chaired by Buchanan Mayor Theresa Knickerbocker with Cortlandt Supervisor Linda Puglisi serving as vice chair.

“We are all in this together,” said Puglisi in defense of the CAB. “We created a task force two years ago when we learned of the decommissioning and have been meeting monthly. We have a large membership including business people, environmentalists, school officials, chamber of commerce, county executives from Westchester, Putnam, Rockland and Orange, along with state representatives.” Puglisi told the NRC to officially recognize the group as a Community Advisory Panel rather than a board.

Knickerbocker said the Community Advisory Panel was a diverse group with Indian Point supporters and critics.

“We are the eyes and ears and the voice for our community,” she said. “Our agenda is the safe decommissioning of Indian Point. This panel will drive the bus for decommissioning.”

The watchdog group Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC) has supported a funded Citizens Oversight Board comprised of impartial members, independent scientists, experts, first responders, plant workers, environmentalists and other informed stakeholders.

“The board should have a budget to hire experts and have appointed environmentalists and volunteers who hold monthly, open meetings,” said IPSEC member Marilyn Elie.

IPSEC maintains a CAB made up of local politicians who might have financial or economic agendas is problematic. IPSEC has drafted citizens’ oversight board legislation that is expected to be introduced to state, county and local lawmakers in January.

Assemblywoman Sandra Galef (D-Ossining) told Watson the NRC should fund the CAB.

“The NRC allowed the nuclear plants to be here, and now that they are being decommissioned, you should be sponsoring and funding the CABs using money in the federal government budget,” Galef said.

Although Indian Point units 2 and 3 generate about 2,000 megawatts of electricity, Con Ed no longer gets electricity from Indian Point. In 2017, the contract between Con Ed and Entergy expired and was not renewed, according to the utility. Up to that point, Indian Point supplied only 560 megawatts to Con Ed.

With competing solar and wind markets offering cheaper energy, Entergy’s high price for electricity has priced the company out of the market. Today, Entergy is closing its aging plants across the country.

An upcoming forum on decommissioning Northeast nuclear plants is scheduled for this Thursday, Oct. 10 from 1 to 4:30 p.m. at Hendrick Hudson Free Library in Montrose.

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