Whew ... That was close.
Less than one month ago the biggest fear of those living in the vicinity of the world's most densely populated area was nearly realized. On May 9th, a transformer at the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y. failed. Subsequently, it went up in flames.
What could have happened next was a nuclear explosion of epic proportions. Indian Point, according to reports, stores approximately 1,500 tons of radioactive waste on site, which, in essence makes the plant a ticking time bomb. Luckily, the nuclear plant's automatic sprinkler system and its brave firefighting personnel extinguished the blaze before complete disaster struck. However, what was left behind was thousands and thousands of gallons of dielectric fluid being leaked into the Hudson River.
Entergy, the energy company that owns and operates Indian Point, has said about 8,300 gallons of the fluid have been recovered or combusted during the fire. That still left approximately 16,000 unaccounted for. Preliminary estimates by the U.S. Coast Guard, based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, indicate that about 3,000 gallons of dielectric fluid from the transformer that failed at Indian Point unit 3 have entered the Hudson River.
The failed transformer held approximately 24,000 gallons of the fluid, which acts as an electrical insulator and coolant inside transformers when they are operational.
According to Entergy, visual observations in the discharge canal and the Hudson River have not indicated significant quantities of transformer oil. The transformer oil from the failed transformer did not contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).
But the assessment of the oil depends on whose eyes one is looking through. Within days of the failure, oil spots were reported as being seen as far away as Rockland County -- some 20 miles away from Buchanan.
"Any spill of transformer oil to the environment is not in accordance with our standards, and Entergy will be accountable for any violation of our responsibility," Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities said in a prepared statement. "We take this commitment very sriously, which is why we have been working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and NYSDEC to identify and respond to reports of transformer oil in the river in order to minimize any potential impact."
Further investigation on what went wrong and how many gallons have actually spilled into the river is ongoing. At the earliest, Entergy said it will finish up the investigation come the end of June. Unit 3 has been repaired and returned to operation May 26th. In the meantime, while still trying to figure out the spillage total and the effect on the river, the fish, frogs, birds and wildlife that live in it, and those that live along it and that rely on it are undoubtedly being negatively impacted.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, in 2013, did a study and prepared a document at the request of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to see how the power plant affects the fish. The 168-page opinion said that nearly 1,000 shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon would be killed during the extended lives of the nuclear plants (20 years) but that would be only a small percentage of the stock. That number, which many advocacy groups say is low, comes as a result of the plant's day to day operation when the fish are caught against water-intake screens as Indian Point takes in 2.5 billion gallons of water from the Hudson River daily to cool the nuclear energy producing equipment.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates water-intake systems at power plants kill 3.4 billion fish and shellfish each year.
When oil flows into any body of water, things become far more toxic, far more deadly, particularly to a tidal estuary such as the Hudson River. The Hudson, due to the fact it ebbs and flows with the tides of the ocean is a biologically rich environment and home to many aquatic species.
Environmental personnel have conducted assessments of approximately 25 locations based on Entergy, Coast Guard and NYSDEC observations regarding potential oil sheens in the Hudson River and have "implemented the appropriate mitigation efforts at their direction at a handful of those sites."
With the plant already five decades old and it currently looking to obtain a license to operate for another 20 years, the question remains: When will this happen again and how bad will it be next time?
"This plant is the nuclear plant that is closest to the most densely populated area on the globe," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "If something goes wrong here, it can go very wrong for a lot of people."
The governor added that there is no denying that "oil did escape from the transformer, and there is no doubt that oil did go into the holding tank and exceeded the capacity of the holding tank, and there was no doubt that oil was discharged into the Hudson River."
Twenty million people live and work within 50 miles of Indian Point, which is just over 20 miles north of New York City. Indian Point, which has been ranked the most dangerous power plant in the U.S., is home to two nuclear power plants, unit 2 and unit 3, which combine to generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity and supply about 25 percent of the power used annually in the Big Apple and Westchester County.
The current license of Indian Point unit 3 expires in December. Entergy is seeking a 20-year renewal -- a long time for a plant that just malfunctioned.
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