Does Andy Revkin Have Growing Doubts About NYC's Aging Nuclear Neighbor?

Andy Revkin of the NY Times has been one of Indian Point’s most prominent supporters, but he seems to have growing doubts about NYC’s aging nuclear neighbor to the north.

On June 12, Revkin published an entry on his influential online NY Times blog, DotEarth, with the provocative title Indian Point’s Tritium Problem and the N.R.C.’s Regulatory Problem.

One of America’s oldest, most dangerous nuke plants continues to be overseen by a regulator only the industry has faith in.

Revkin refers to recent increases in observed levels of radioactive tritium in the groundwater beneath Indian Point, adjacent to the plant’s spent fuel pools. He asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for comment about this disturbing news and also queried David A. Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

That’s where things got interesting.

Revkin wrote that he “agree[s] with Lochbaum on the need for significant changes in [nuke plant] oversight” and quotes Lochbaum as saying, “The N.R.C. should enforce its regulations or change its name…”

Lochbaum is far from the most famous expert to observe that the NRC is a paper tiger, not a real regulator. That honor belongs to our President, Barack Obama, who said, in 2007, The NRC is a “moribund agency. It’s become captive of the industry that it regulates.”

Tritium leaks at Indian Point have spurred new question about NRC oversight.

Revkin sent me his essay and I asked him, in reply, “If the NRC is not an effective regulator (which you seem to believe they are not) we should close Indian Point until NRC becomes effective, right? After all, a facility this dangerous should not be in operation without strong regulatory oversight, should it?”

Revkin wrote back almost immediately, and said:

“Why i disagree:
1) no difference in tritium etc risks if shut down.
2) fuel going nowhere whether decommissioned or not.
3) more opportunity to incent best practices etc if company has an interest in keeping things going?”

I showed this response to a number of people who observed that it really ducks the core issue: Does NRC’s unreliability require closure of Indian Point? So, I pressed on, with responses to Revkin on each of his three proposed reasons why closure is not required.

Read page one

1) no difference in tritium etc risks if shut down.
I responded to this by saying, “Tritium leaks are the just tip of the iceberg. Shutting down Indian Point would eliminate other, far more catastrophic operational risks associated with the plant’s age and lack of effective regulation (like failure to inspect more than 5% of the plant per year, the presence of corroded underground piping, and lax oversight of poor security).”

2) fuel going nowhere whether decommissioned or not. 
Here, I pointed out that, “If Indian Point is shut down rather than relicensed, we would avoid the creation of an additional thousand tons of highly-radioactive spent fuel that will significantly increase the risk in an accident or attack. Plus, one unavoidable, ongoing risk—the presence of orphaned spent nuclear fuel—is no reason to prolong a second, avoidable risk—unsafe operation of poorly-regulated 40-year old nuclear reactors.”

3) more opportunity to incent best practices etc if company has an interest in keeping things going? 
This one really struck me as naive. So, I observed: “Without a reliable regulator, Entergy has repeatedly gamed the system rather than implement best practices. For example: when the fireproofing insulation on cables supplying power to the reactors were found to be vastly substandard, Entergy did not replace the cables with satisfactory new ones—they asked NRC for a variance which was dutifully granted.”

I closed with:

“Forgive the presumption, Andy, but perhaps your conclusion that we should let Indian Point continue to operate without effective regulation is driven by your concerns about carbon loading. These concerns do not change the fact that Indian Point is at the end of its 40 years of intended use; in close proximity to 18 million people and two earthquake faults that have led NRC to rank the plant as the U.S. nuke facility most at risk for meltdown due to earthquake; that Indian Point has no viable evacuation plan; that its spent fuel pools have five times as much nuclear waste in them as they were designed to hold; and, that the NRC is an unreliable regulator … Riverkeeper believes that we cannot allow our village to be placed at such real and significant risk of destruction in an attempt to save it from climate disruption.”

When I didn’t hear back from Revkin [he's usually very prompt in writing back; like me, I think he enjoys this sort of give and take], I pressed him for a reply, and he said he’d been offline and would have a look.

It’s been a week and still no reply from Revkin. Is he processing? Deciding whether to let the other shoe drop and call for closure?

More likely, he has just moved on.

Meanwhile, one of America’s oldest, most dangerous nuke plants continues to be overseen by a regulator only the industry has faith in. If Andy Revkin can’t explain why this is acceptable to him, doesn’t it mean he’s finally crossed the line from journalist to apologist, when it comes to Indian Point? 

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