NRC challenged in U.S. Court of Appeals for easing safety requirements at Indian Point

Finally! An autocratic agency with Byzantine regulations is being called to account by the State of New York and Representative Richard Brodsky.   Granting exemptions to existing licensing at the behest of Entergy without public hearings is a violation on the NRC’s charter to protect public health and safety.  The serious matter of fire safety cannot be brushed aside.   This issue strikes to the very heart of the way safety and the public’s right to know has been systematically ignored. Under any reasonable, transparent review process this would have been handled as part of an amendment licensing process and not through a obscure back door out of the public eye.”  – Marilyn Elie, Founding member of Westchester Citizens Awareness NetworkPublic Advocacy Groups and Attorney General to Argue Against Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Unsafe Fire Safety Exemption Granted to Indian Point before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

On Monday, May 11 oral arguments will take place at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Ceremonial Court Room, 9th floor, 500Pearl St., New York City at 10:00 a.m. in a case that has been brought against the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by several public interest groups including the Westchester Citiz en’s Awareness Network (WestCAN), the Rockland County Conservation Association, Inc. (RCCA), the Public Health and Sustainable Energy (PHASE), the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter, and Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester), and  New York State Attorney’s General Office has filed an amicus brief.  The groups challenge the NRC’s decision to exempt Indian Point Nuclear Facility Unit 3 from fire safety regulations that reduced fire safety standards from one hour to twenty-four minutes.

Under the NRC regulations, a nuclear power facility built prior to 1979 must enclose the cable and equipment necessary for a safe shutdown by using a fire barrier with a one-hour fire rating. According to the exemption Indian Point’s fire rating has been reduced to twenty-four minutes, a 76% reduction fire safety standard.

Since 1993, the NRC has known that the fire barrier utilized at Indian Point does not meet the one-hour duration.  According to the 1993 test, the fire barrier only lasts 23.2 minutes, however the NRC took no action until 2005.  The 2005 test confirmed that the fire barrier failed to perform for one hour and exceeded temperature limits within thirteen to forty-two minutes.

In 2006, the NRC issued a letter to certain nuclear plants requesting that they propose a resolution for the problems associated with the fire barrier.  In response, the owners of Indian Point nuclear facilities, Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc., requested an exemption from the one hour fire safety standard.    On August 16, 2008, the request was revised requesting a reduction from one hour to twenty-four minutes for certain areas.  Thirty-four days later the NRC granted the exemption.

The NRC must not prompt any exemptions to regulations which increase the likelihood of catastrophic risks.  The public has been made vulnerable by the NRC’s secretive reduction in fire safety without notice or opportunity for hearings.”  Annie Wilson for Sierra Club – Atlantic Chapter

The result of the NRC’s decision to grant the exemption from one hour to twenty-four minutes means that a single fire must be detected, fire brigade assembled and fully extinguished in less than twenty-four minutes.  Like most operating nuclear reactors, Indian Point Unit 3 contains miles of electrical cables that control and power safety systems, including valves, pumps, motors, and gauges designed to ensure the prompt shutdown of the nuclear reactor.  A fire at Indian Point that damaged those cables could disable the critical systems served by the cables preventing safe shut down and ultimately may lead to a major radiation release that could have a disastrous impact on the health and property of the people of New York.

Petitioners will argue that the NRC improperly granted the “exemption”, lacked authority to grant exemptions, failed to allow required public participation, failed to give proper notice, failed to consider relevant evidence in making its decision, and violated National Environmental Policy Act.  Petitioners will further argue that the NRC created a potentially illegal loophole by permitting mischaracterization of the request as an “exemption” rather than an amendment, thereby violating the Atomic Energy Act.

Entergy is sailing up the river in a boat loaded with non-compliance. They are supposed to protecting the public, not accommodating private industry.”  Maureen Ritter of PHASE (Public Health and Sustainable Energy)

The NRC’s decision drastically compromises the safety of the Indian Point nuclear facilities.  Upwards of twenty million people work, live, or travel within fifty miles of Indian Point.  This case marks the first time the NRC’s right to grant exemptions without notice and hearings has been challenged.

The case will be argued on Monday, May 11 before Honorable John M. Walker, Jr., Honorable Sonia Sotomayor, and Honorable John Clifford Wallace of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky will be arguing for the Petitioners.  Assistant Attorney General John Sipos, Esq. will be arguing on behalf of the New York State Attorney General’s Office.  A representative will be arguing on behalf of the NRC, as well as a representative from  Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc.

Fires are recognized as one of the most significant safety hazards at nuclear power plants, they are not uncommon. The NRC’s reckless willingness to dramatically reduce the safety margins to 24 minutes is an egress abdication of is responsibility.    The regulations that were exempted are critical safety regulations related to the electrical cables and where enacted in response to the Brown’s Ferry fire.   Brown’s Ferry fire started in the insulation of electrical cable trays, it raged for nearly 7 hours, burnt and reactors were out of control for almost two days.” Michel Lee, Board member of Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS) and Chair on Council on Conservation & Intelligent Energy Policy (CCIP)

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One response to “NRC challenged in U.S. Court of Appeals for easing safety requirements at Indian Point

  1. Harry Springer

    Rep. Brodsky has gotten a lot of career mileage out of oh-so-visible harrassment of Indian Point & NRC, and this is just the latest instance.

    When Indian Point discovered it had fire wrap that had a reduced time rating, it immediately scoped out a re-wrap job, and solicited contractors to do the work. The vulnerable portions of its wiring will simply be double-wrapped, in this way far , far exceeding the original 1 hour fire rating. This work is in progress, as I write.

    Thus ends the “public safety” portion of this issue- a proactive plant owner took ownership, and solved it, unilaterally. Therefore, Rep. Brodsky has no issue-gold to mine, with respect to Indian Point.

    But…. still needing public exposure as a “campaigner”, Rep. Brodsky took this now-moot issue, and changed it into a negative commentary on NRC actions. NRC was indeed slow to act. However, no law determines NRC’s speed of response, and the original 1-hour rating was never a legally imposed mandate, just an administrative benchmark set by NRC staff. These benchmarks can be set, reset, rescinded at their pleasure by NRC staff, provided they are part of some overall strategy that mitigates any individual reductions.

    In this case, simply by adding additional fire watches, electronic fire detection, and more robust fire fighting preparations, the lowered time rating was in truth well mitigated, reducing the feckless Brodsky to quibbling over internal NRC minutiae…. in effect, attempting to fantasy-micromanage an independent agency over which he holds no brief.

    But Mr. Brodsky sounds nobly outraged, and appears vigilant, thus exciting his political base—- which is what this issue is all about. He has manipulated and exploited your venue, and all others carrying this story, in just one more crass and valueless self promotion stunt.

    It is time that those politikoes riding into office via antinuclear organizations’ mailing lists fess up, and admit they are totally powerless to implement what they have promised.

    Fess up, Mr. Brodsky.

    Or is false outrage enough?

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