NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawmakers continue to call for the closure of a nuclear power plant less than 50 miles from New York City, despite the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission vouching for the plant’s safety on a tour on Tuesday.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko was unable to allay long-held concerns of New York lawmakers opposed to continued operation of the Indian Point nuclear station, concerns now heightened by Japan’s recent nuclear accident.
Jaczko was invited to the nuclear plant to meet with U.S. Reps. Nita Lowey (D-New York) and Eliot Engel (D-New York) to discuss public safety issues involving the plant located on the shores of the Hudson River, just north of the nation’s biggest metropolitan area.
Entergy Corp, the New Orleans-based owner of the two Indian Point reactors, is working to extend the units’ operating licenses for 20 years. Without renewal, the units could shut in 2013 and 2015 when the original 40-year operating licenses expire.
Some state politicians and environmental groups have been fighting for decades to shut Indian Point, but have been stymied by federal regulators who say the plant is safe.
Since the March 11 earthquake and disaster that crippled Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station, relicensing of the 2,045-megawatt Indian Point plant and other U.S. reactors has become even more contentious.
New York politicians, including the state’s Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have stepped up efforts to shut Indian Point.
The NRC staff is scrutinizing safety issues at all 104 U.S. nuclear reactors and is expected to give the first post-Fukushima report to commissioners later this week.
Jaczko told reporters the NRC will learn lessons from the Japanese disaster and make changes as needed. He said Indian Point meets all NRC standards. “Where there are problems, we will identify them and work to fix them,” Jaczko said.
Among Lowey’s top safety concerns are emergency evacuation planning and Indian Point’s seismic characteristics.
Lowey noted that the NRC recommended U.S. citizens evacuate a 50-mile radius of the damaged Fukushima plant while NRC standards call for a 10-mile evacuation zone.
More than 20 million people are estimated to live within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point.
“It is reckless and irresponsible to relicense this plant with an evacuation plan that we know to be inadequate,” Lowey said.
Jaczko declined to comment on Indian Point’s hotly contested relicensing, but said the NRC process looks at how a plant’s existing systems will work to safely shut a plant in the event of a seismic event.
Jaczko said an ongoing NRC seismic risk assessment of 27 U.S. nuclear plants, including Indian Point, could take two to three years. “We have found no immediate safety issues related to the seismic review,” he said.
Regarding evacuations, Jaczko said the agency would evaluate accidents individually.
“In the unlikely event of an accident at a U.S. plant, we would evaluate the circumstances and determine the appropriate evacuation zone,” said Jaczko, adding that the 10-mile zone is used for planning purposes.
Jaczko said formal hearings on the Indian Point renewal will begin this summer. The agency could make a decision within one year to 18 months, but is dependent on other events as well, he said.
Indian Point supporters say the plant is needed to maintain a reliable supply of power to serve more than 1.6 million New York homes.
The New York Independent System Operator (ISO), the grid operator, said in April it was concerned about the ability of energy companies to develop adequate replacement generation to serve southeast New York if the Indian Point reactors shut in the next few years.
Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Lisa Shumaker