Entergy Corp.—owner and operator of the Indian Point nuclear power plant located in Buchanan, N.Y.—announced on February 6 that it had discovered elevated levels of tritium in samples from three of its groundwater monitoring wells at the facility.

The samples were taken as part of the plants ongoing comprehensive groundwater-monitoring program. Although the company said that the effect of the elevated values was less than 0.1% of federal reporting guidelines, it voluntarily notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), state agencies, and key stakeholders of the test results.

In a statement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo—who has been a vocal critic of the plant—said: “The company reported alarming levels of radioactivity at three monitoring wells, with one well’s radioactivity increasing nearly 65,000 percent. The facility reports that the contamination has not migrated off site and as such does not pose an immediate threat to public health.”

History of Leaky Piping

It’s not the first time Indian Point has had to deal with water leaking into unintended areas. In February 2009, Entergy plant operators discovered water leaking from a buried section of piping associated with the condenser hotwell reject line to the Unit 2 condensate storage tank.

Entergy determined that much of the leakage had gone through the plant’s storm drain system and flowed to its discharge canal. To correct the problem, the area around the leak location was excavated, the affected pipe section was replaced, and the system was returned to normal in a little less than a week’s time.

The company’s root cause investigation concluded that the protective external pipe coating that was applied at the time of original construction had failed, resulting in external corrosion in a localized area. A potential contributing factor was that backfill—placed around the pipe during installation—contained rocks up to eight inches in diameter. Investigators suspected that the large rocks likely damaged the pipe coating during installation, allowing corrosion mechanisms to act on the unprotected metal surfaces.

In that instance, the section of piping was also at a low point, which was close to the water table. Damp or wet conditions may have accelerated general corrosion of exposed carbon steel.

One of the company’s first corrective actions was to update the backfill specification. The company also implemented a buried piping and tank inspection program, including the use of improved inspection techniques.

State Fights Relicensing

Entergy has applied for a 20-year license extension, which would allow its two units to operate into the 2030s. Although, many of the licensing hurdles, such as the safety evaluation report and final environmental impact statement, have been completed, Entergy is still engaged with the state in administrative and other proceedings related to the license renewal.

Gov. Cuomo strongly opposes relicensing of the Indian Point Energy Center. On numerous occasions, he has asserted that Entergy does not have, and cannot develop, a safety and evacuation plan for dealing with a major disaster so close to New York City.

In November, Director of State Operations Jim Malatras sent a letter to the NRC voicing the governor’s objections. The letter said that “Entergy’s aging management plan is woefully inadequate” and cited “embrittled reactor pressure vessels and fatigued metals on key reactor components” as potential problems. It also noted that unplanned shutdowns, including one resulting from a transformer fire, had recently plagued the facility.

“The NRC should, on an expedited basis, deny Entergy’s application for relicensing of the Indian Point Facilities,” Malatras wrote.

Also in November, the New York Department of State issued its objection to Entergy’s consistency certification. In a letter, Secretary of State Cesar Perales said that the Indian Point project did not comply with “the enforceable policies of the New York State Coastal Management Program.” The state’s decision prohibits the NRC from relicensing the facility, unless the U.S. Secretary of Commerce overrides the objection on appeal.

Entergy, for its part, asked a federal court in January to invalidate the state’s finding. It said the state’s objection was “unlawful,” noting that federal law precludes it from using “presumed nuclear safety issues as a basis for decision making in a state regulatory review.”

It is expected that the license renewal process will take several more years before the NRC makes a final determination. In the meantime, both units are operating under the “Timely Renewal” provision, which extends the initial 40-year license while the renewal process continues.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)