When Entergy discovered small amounts of tritium in the water in three of 40 monitoring wells at its Indian Point nuclear plant north of New York City last week, it must have sent off pulsating political alarms in the New Orleans headquarters. The company is involved in a long-running battle with anti-nuclear and environmentalist activists, led by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who have been trying to shut down the two-unit, 2,200-MW plant on the Hudson River. Cuomo has been in the Indian Point shut down camp at least since his days as attorney general, 2007-2010.
Indian Point’s opponents, who find its 45-mile proximity to New York City unacceptable, are opposing a license renewal for the 40-year-old, two-unit plant. The Cuomo administration is also arguing that Entergy should build closed-cycle cooling towers at Indian Point, a $2 billion proposition that could lead Entergy to close the plant, Cuomo’s objective.
The tritium leak is technically a tiny issue. The isotope is only slightly radioactive, emitting beta particles that don’t penetrate skin. Ingested or inhaled, it could cause problems. The levels that Entergy found were far below the threshold for informing the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission or New York environmental regulators. Entergy, sensitized to the politics and bruised by a long-running tritium issue at the now-closed Vermont Yankee plant, blew the whistle on itself, a smart move.
But when it comes to political battles over Indian Point, Entergy has long been in the position of bringing a knife to a gun fight. Cuomo, son of legendary New York politician Mario Cuomo, has, among other assets, the bully pulpit and its megaphone as governor to steer the direction of the debate. Entergy has often been tone-deaf to politics concerning its nuclear plants, particularly the merchant units far from its home territory in the Mississippi River drainage.
Cuomo immediately pounced on the disclosure, describing the tritium as being present at “alarming levels,” whatever that might mean. Without directly charging that Entergy had done anything wrong, Cuomo issued a statement saying, “The latest failure at Indian Point is unacceptable and I have directed Department of Environmental Conservation Acting Commissioner Basil Seggos and Department of Health Commission Howard Zucker to fully investigate this incident and employ all available measures, including working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to determine the extent of the release, its likely duration, cause and potential impacts to the environment and public health.”
Making no accusations, Cuomo hit all the right anxiety buttons: failure, investigate, environment, public health. As the Gizmodo web site noted, the tritium leak resonates with the recent news of lead in the water in Flint, Mich., and other cities, and a general concern about the state of U.S. infrastructure.
Entergy issued a statement, saying, “While elevated tritium in the ground on-site is not in accordance with our standards, there is no health or safety consequence to the public, and releases are more than a thousand times below federal permissible limits. The tritium did not affect any source of drinking water on-site or offsite.”
That’s not likely to reassure members of the general public in New York, although it is entirely accurate.
Seeming to undermine Entergy’s assurances, the NRC immediately announced that it is sending a radiation-protection specialist to Indian Point, the New York Times reported. The agency quoted NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan that the feds will “review the recent tritium leakage incident” and Entergy’s response. Sheehan said the contamination was not a threat to public health or the environment.
It is a political threat to Entergy’s continued operation of Indian Point.