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Indian Point. A slightly differerent view.

David Lewis's picture
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  • Nov 25, 2010 7:41 am GMT

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 plane flies into reactor

Terrorists are not going to be able to harm the reactor by crashing an airplane into it“.   This is what Dan Yurman and Gwyneth Cravens, in “Andrew Cuomo needs to take a second look at Indian Point“, an op-ed published in the New York Daily News, tell us.  They say this newspaper has the biggest circulation of any paper in New York. 

 Yurman and Cravens say a 2006 NAS study 1.  “dismissed” the possibility.  

Terrorist attack on Indian Point is the biggest public concern that is driving the politics Cuomo is responding to.  Or say, that Cuomo is taking advantage of, if that is the way you view him.  That’s what the study Yurman and Cravens refer us to says.

The study says although the public has expressed concern about reactors at Indian Point since 1982, by the year 2000 when Entergy stepped up to buy the reactors, public concern had “faded”

Then everything changed.  Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on 09/11.  The study continued: 

growing anxiety over the safety of nuclear power plants has transformed Indian Point from a fringe issue that only antinuclear crusaders care about to a mainstream concern, and not just for Westchester suburbanites, but for New York City and New Jersey residents, who had, until now, barely registered the plant’s existence 40 miles north of Midtown Manhattan.”

This is what is driving Cuomo.  This is why he had a plank in his latest election campaign platform to junk the reactors.  The Yurman and Cravens statement that the NAS “dismissed” this most feared by the public possibility is fair political debate, and it should be said, unless it isn’t true

I wondered.  The NAS study Yurman and Cravens point to did not assess terrorist attack.   What it says is this:

 “Scenarios leading to catastrophic releases were no longer easy to dismiss on the basis of fault-tree calculations and experience underlying previous assurances of safety, although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Entergy point out that it would be very difficult for an airplane or attackers to cause a major release, and, in any case, security would be upgraded. Such assurances were not sufficient to allay public concern.” 

 This is just the way the NAS panel summed up the politics, which they described in passing on their way to their main concern, which is stated in the preface:

  “The report focuses exclusively on options for replacing current electric power generation and ancillary services from Indian Point. In accordance with the original request, it does not examine the potential for terrorist attacks on Indian Point, nor their probability of success or possible consequences. It makes no recommendations as to whether Indian Point should be closed or how that decision could be implemented.”

There is an NAS reportSafety and Security of Commercial Spent poolNuclear Fuel Storage” that actually did assess terrorist attack.  The report Yurman and Cravens chose refers to it. 

 That NAS report studied scenarios of terrorist attack on the significant quantities of highly radioactive material that are stored in pools of water outside the primary containment structure at US reactor sites, which potentially could be a problem if terrorists managed to somehow blow it all into the surrounding environment.  No one was thinking about terrorists attacking with planes when they decided to build the pools outside the containment, or when they decided to fill them with spent fuel rods beyond original design specification when the political process failed to create a more permanent respository such as Yucca….

flies into concrete block

When pro nuclear advocates talk about airplanes being hollow tubes that go splat when they hit thick reinforced concrete blocks in experiments designed to simulate what would happen if an aircraft hit a containment building that was protecting a nuclear reactor, they aren’t talking about the greater amount of radioactive material that is sitting outside the containment cooling in these pools. 


This NAS panel concluded that:  “the committee judges that attacks by… terrorists… are possible”.

 Now I’m probably way out on a limb here, but this doesn’t sound like the NAS “dismissed this scenario”.

 The Indian Point spent fuel storage pool is not the type the NAS considered “most vulnerable”.  The NAS didn’t think any of the pools were very vulnerable.  And closing Indian Point wouldn’t affect this risk in any case until the spent fuel was stored somewhere else which is less likely now that Yucca has been cancelled.

 But this NAS panel simply did not “dismiss” the possibility of terrorist attack presenting some level of risk to the surrounding community.  My reading of the report was that the NAS felt the risk was miniscule compared to other risks other sectors of US industry present to their surrounding communities.  The NAS made some suggestions how even this small risk could be reduced substantially. 

 Perhaps Yurman and Cravens are too anxious to minimize a risk that many others have blown out of proportion and let their anxiety cause this error to slip into their op-ed.  Cravens has written one of the best books on nuclear power that has ever been written for the general public, i.e. Power to Save the World, and her way of writing about risk in that book is as well informed and well phrased as any I’ve ever seen. 

 It is a fact that many reporters at the time this NAS “Safety and Security”extra report on terrorist attack came out piled on alongside the antinukes.  Here is Mathew Wald in the NYTimes :

 “An attack would be difficult but “certainly no more difficult than the Sept. 11 attacks,” Kevin Crowley, the study director at the National Academy, said in a conference call with reporters“. 

This is like saying an attack by the Japanese on Midway Island would be “no more difficult” for them than their attack on Pearl Harbor.  The slight difference that the Japanese, when they attacked Midway, faced a fully aroused US that was formally at war them turned that attack into a shattering defeat for them.  Japanese success at Pearl depended on surprise – so did the attack on the World Trade Center.

Wald carefully avoided reporting what Crowley would say next if any of the reporters on that conference call had cared to ask.  I.e. where does this risk fit into the overall national security problem presented by the fact that the US is now at war with terrorists whose main tactic is suicide attacks aimed at panicking large numbers of civilians?  The committee wasn’t even asked this as part of its original mandate. 

 I would add to this by asking Wald:  whose purposes are served as you magnify public fear during wartime when the only weapon the people the US is at war with have is manipulating public fear?  Isn’t it your responsibility to report more fully? 

 What Wald didn’t think worth reporting was the conclusion of the Finding 2A, i.e. the paragraph where the statement that such an attack was “possible” was:

 “It is important to recognize however that an attack that damages a power plant or its spent fuel storage facilities would not necessarily result in the release of any radioactivity to the environment.  There are potential steps that can be taken to lower the potential consequences of such attacks“. 

 no nukesOther reporters did the same as Wald, i.e. magnify risk as opposed to reporting what the NAS said.  One, Bruce Gellerman, quoted the antinuke Gordon Thompson, who said all US nuclear reactors are “radiological weapons awaiting activation by an enemy”, and then Gellerman slid in his personal conclusion which was that the NAS report “agreed with” Thompson’s “analysis”.  I took him to task for this.  All he came up with in his defence was “you have to extrapolate from the NAS report“.  Maybe we should change what we call “reporters” to “extrapolators”

 Perhaps reporters who feel they need to cater to their public to some extent if their employer is going to stay in business feel they can or should kick nuclear around because it’s down and out.  The public’s scientifically unsupportable fears about all things nuclear have yet to be tempered by the realization that nuclear is the cheapest most highly scalable baseload power source available if one day people decide to take CO2 seriously.  Perhaps reporters don’t yet see the CO2 problem in the way scientists do. 

 But Yurman and Cravens tell us the NAS said something it didn’t.  The NAS did not “dismiss” terrorist scenarios.  The problem is that the NAS didn’t attempt to put the risk into perspective.  No one asked them to.  

 The industry Yurman and Cravens support is floundering.  Public suspicion hiroshimaabout nuclear goes as far back as when the US government lied to Americans saying there were no radiation deaths in Hiroshima rather than frankly admitting them while pointing out how many Americans and Japanese would have had to die horribly on battlefields when Japan’s home islands were invaded, if that war was to continue without using atomic weapons.  And it is a fact that everyone saw the NRC, not confident for a brief period when the entire world was hanging on every new report to see if the accident at Three Mile Island was going to be a catastrophe.

Some way has to be found to frankly discuss and compare nuclear risk to risks such as climate change without resorting to fantasy or suppression of fact.  I should say: if the nuclear industry wants a future, or if any of us want our descendants to have a future. 

 The planet is being killed by the wastes of a competing industry, i.e. fossil fuels, and many pro nuclear types don’t seem to be able to think clearly about it.   

 DanYurman recently claimed that concern about climate was now fundamental to all environmental concern, and then hailed his fellow nuclear advocate, Patrick Moore, as an example of a new “true” type of environmentalist.  Moore is a climate denier who went as far as to challenge a representative of the oldest scientific society on Earth to show his qualifications, after which he raised the question as to does the Royal Society understand what science is.  Moore was defending Exxon-Mobil as they continued their climate denial campaign because the Royal Society of London sent Exxon a letter reminding Exxon it had told the Royal Society the campaign would be stopped.   

 white rabbitAlice could come here directly from Wonderland and not notice the difference.

 A last point:  when the NAS assessed closing Indian Point in 2006 there was concern about where alternate energy supplies could possibly come from. 

 “The committee finds that the availability and price of natural gas would be major considerations, and perhaps constraints, in planning for new generating capacity to replace power from the Indian Point units….   This increase in New York’s dependence on natural gas for power production will stress supplies of natural gas.

 That concern has fairly recently disappearedHeavyweight financial analysts are starting to think the US has discovered so much new gas that it may not have to import oil in five or six years. 

 The “frankengas” 2. effect on the nuclear industry was confirmed as Moody’s dropped Entergy’s credit rating to Baa3 , “one step above what …is generally known as ‘junk’ status”.  Moody’s stated: “...lower (natural gas) prices in the Northeast make it highly unlikely that the [nuclear] business will continue to generate as much cash flow”    

 Cuomo needs to reconsider closing Indian Point, but if pro nuclear advocates think they can convince his supporters to change their minds by addressing their main concern with, what was it, an error, a comforting but not quite true Alice in Wonderland fairy tale, whatever, they should think again.  And how hard is it going to prove to be to put in enough “right sized” gas generators to replace the reactors?  Pro nukes, so far, are trying to sell New Yorkers on the idea that the nukes can’t be replaced. 

 A parting shot:  ten years of the most aggressive subsidy for solar power on the planet gave Germany the ability to generate a yearly output of solar power about equal to what one nuclear reactor the size of the two at Indian Point can put out.  The extra cost Germans will be picking up is $40 billion dollars. New Yorkers should be told facts like this. 

 The lifecycle CO2 emissions of Indian Point nuclear power are lower than those of solar.


[1] Alternatives to the Indian Point Energy Center for Meeting New York Electric Power Needs , 2006, Introduction, page 14)

[2] frankengas:  1. “fracked” natural gas that environmentalists say is “green” that recent studies suggest has a greater climate impact than coal.  2. Something artificially created its creator thought would give him more life, that actually hastened his death. 

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Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Nov 25, 2010

The spent fuel pools at Indian Point are in underground concrete bunkers. They are not on the surface, and they are not obvious targets for a terrorist attack.

The dry cask storate units are fully capable of withstanding a direct hit from an airplane.  They are composed of thick concrete and steel canisters. The canisters have been proven to be able to withstand the impact of a railroad locomotive hitting them at over 80 MPH.

Cravens and I do not deal in fairy tales. Gratuitous insults, such as the ones by Lewis in this post, are not an invitation to civil dialog. They are indicators of anti-social behavior.



David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Nov 25, 2010

Perhaps you might want to refute one point I made, just to show us how its done. I realize you don’t like to waste your time debating with me.

Do you know of an NAS study that “dismisses” the possibility of terrorists causing a threat to the community or region around a reactor by attacking a reactor site? 

I sent you a request for information when I originally started researching this topic some time ago.  I told you what materials I had decided to study and I asked you what other material I should get.  You did not respond. 

Your request to me for information about an issue, in the not so distant past, had me going to several libraries, reading several books, reviewing my stack of the literature, refreshing my memory of an issue I had once been a master of several decades ago, and to an extended correspondence.  I remain grateful to you for the time your intervention got me a tour of a nuclear reactor.  I remain firm in my belief that you are mistaken if you believe the National Academy is not capable of assessing whether anyone has ever measured the concentration of certain gases in the atmosphere or what that concentration is.  I believe you are way off base when you assert that the Nobel Committee made an error when they awarded the Nobel Prize to some atmospheric chemists.

Re:  Exxon and natural gas.  It seems to me they are investing heavily in gas precisely because they agree with you, i.e. what they want is for everyone to buy into the idea that gas is green, plentiful, and will be low cost as far into the future as anyone can see, so that as they secure more and more reserves of it, they will be in a position to make a lot of money.  Just because I quote a financial analyst does not mean I agree with him.  I quoted that analyst to show that there are such analysts saying such things. 

My position on gas is that burning it emits CO2, I don’t believe that CO2 waste can be safely emitted to the atmosphere any longer, therefore no one should be thinking gas is “green”.  The latest research suggests that contrary to the opinion of many environmentalists, the climate impact of gas is greater than coal, especially if viewed over decadal time periods rather than centuries or millenia. 

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Nov 25, 2010

I moved this comment to below one of Dan Yurmans because it responds to him. 

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Nov 25, 2010

I agree with almost everything in your comment, except your description of some of my posted remarks as “gratuitous insults“, and your charge that I am engaging in “anti social” behaviour. I’m not sure about the “fairy tale” thing – I assume you do not dispute the fact that the NAS did not “dismiss” the scenario that terrorists attacking a reactor site present a risk to the surrounding community? 

I would agree, and I so stated, that the risk is “miniscule“, and I went further, saying there are many other risks no one seems to care about that dwarf the risk presented by the use of nuclear power to generate electricity. Perhaps your view is that merely discussing this issue is like shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded theater?  I don’t have that view. 

The heart of the issue I am discussing is what is the best way to change a political situation. 

Your post on Indian Point politics explains to your readers that what Cuomo says is not true, that he doesn’t understand what he is talking about, his followers are fear mongers, and Cuomo and some of his political supporters appear to get their ideas about Indian Point from watching the Simpsons.  I would imagine you would not call these statements “gratuitous insults”. Obviously you aren’t being anti-social.  Who would want to socialize with Mr. Cuomo and his followers anyway?

I, on the other hand, attempted to get my ideas on this subject from studying National Academy of Sciences reports, which I quoted directly from.  My view of how to attempt to conduct a political debate is to address the heart of my political opponent’s concern, which in this case is terrorist attack, not by saying something that is not true, i.e. that the National Academy studied the issue and “dismissed” the possibility, but by taking the issue as serious and discussing how the issue has been blown out of proportion by a society that fears the highly concentrated power that is contained in the atomic nucleus. 

Obviously I did not discuss the issue in a way that impressed you. 

I’m sorry if you feel insulted.  Did any National Academy study “dismiss” the possibility that a terrorist attack on a reactor site could pose a risk to the surrounding community? Does the NAS study you refer to in your post say something different than I quoted on the subject of terrorist attack?  Did I quote it incorrectly?  Is there something about quoting an NAS report correctly that is anti-social? 

I didn’t mention in this post the scenario the NAS study found most disturbing.  I’m not sure why.  I think I was held back by thoughts that most people wouldn’t understand frank talk about risk, however miniscule it might be.  So let’s get into it.  You say the pools are “underground bunkers” that are “not obvious targets”.  This is true.  I’m sure you know all of what I will discuss already. 

Here is what an Indian Point spent fuel pool looks like:

It is a “bunker”, except they didn’t build this bunker with any thought it might need to be defended against air attack.

Notice the non existent top.  Bear in mind that this pool is not inside the containment structure that protects the reactor vessel and its highly radioactive nuclear fuel.  The buildings that house most of these pools are according to the NAS: “typically steel, industrial-type buildings”, not designed to withstand even something like a “tornado borne missile… [like a] car”

Because this reactor design burns hardly anything in its fuel before its efficiency declines to the point where the fuel must be replaced, the spent fuel rods are highly radioactive and must be isolated from the environment for a while before they are no longer dangerous. 

The first stage of fuel rod processing on their way out of the reactor is to let them sit in one of these pools for a while. 

These pools now generally contain more highly radioactive material than is inside the reactors. You have to make one of these “if this very unlikely thing happens followed by this extremely unlikely thing which happens while this other very unlikely thing is happening” sort of arguments to come up with a scenario where the radioactivity ends up blowing out into the surrounding region, but it is a fact that the NAS took the possibility seriously enough to recommend that certain cheap common sense actions that could make it even less likely be done. 

It is ludicrous to worry about something like this as long as the much more serious threats that remain on US soil presented by other industries and activities that would cause far more problems if terrorists attacked them are not dealt with. 

Pool storage is part of the fuel cycle the Ralph Nader anti nukes of this world vowed they would “constipate” as their idea of a good thing to do, to force the rest of us to be so unable to deal with the relatively tiny problem it presents we’d end up agreeing with them that we should discard, i.e. no longer use, this fantastic resource.  Nader et al do not want us to use the cheapest, lowest CO2 emitting most highly scalable source of baseload power that is currently proven and available.  So at the time the NAS studied this issue, the pools tended to be full beyond what the designers originally had in mind, because the waste issue is a political football that hasn’t been dealt with. 

 So, after all this, what is the most disturbing scenario the NAS did not dismiss?  It was the possibility of a “propagating zirconium cladding fire“.  Although they said:  “Additional analyses are needed to understand more fully the vulnerabilities and consequences of events that could lead to propagating zirconium cladding fires”, they could not “dismiss” the possibilty and recommended rearranging spent rods in the pools and adding water spray systems that could cool the rods even if “the pool or overlying building were severely damaged”, by terrorist attack.

They did sort of dismiss one theoretical possibility:  “The committee could probably design configurations in which fuel might be deformed or relocated to enable its recriticality, but the committee judges such an event to be unlikely”. 

Apparently, a “propagating zirconium cladding fire” is “a runaway oxidation reaction….  Beginning with the cladding rupture, these events would result in the release of radioactive fission gases and some of the fuel’s radioactive material in the form of aerosols into the building that houses the spent fuel pool and possibly into the environment.  If the heat from one burning assembly is not dissipated, the fire could spread to other spent fuel assemblies in the pool, producing a propagating zirconium cladding fire.” 

Which, as they stated, needs further study to figure out how big of a threat this is to the surrounding community.  I don’t understand how anyone can say the NAS “dismissed” any possibility of a terrorist attack causing problems for the surrounding community after reading this, but to say this is probably a “gratuitous insult” I make because I am “anti-social”. 


Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Nov 26, 2010


The most important point about this story is that it has nothing to do with the question of whether we should build new nuclear plants, because all new plants will have large well shielded spent fuel pools.

It’s like debating whether old cars without seat belts should be modified.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Nov 28, 2010

Ultimately I find this article to be rather pointless. If it is about refuting Dan’s assertions in another medium, then perhaps it would have held more meaning if it had been posted there.

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Nov 28, 2010

Dan posted everything I refer to of his here on The Energy Collective. 

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