September 2, 1999

Malfunction Shuts Down Indian Point Nuclear Plant


Emergency officials have temporarily shut down the Indian Point 2 nuclear power plant in Westchester County after a series of apparent electrical problems created the most serious situation at the plant in three years, officials said Wednesday.

The trouble began at 2:30 P.M. Tuesday, when a faulty transmitter indicated a problem in the reactor's temperature and pressure readings. The information, though false, automatically triggered a shutdown of the plant, said Michael J. Spall, a spokesman for Consolidated Edison, the plant's operator. It was the first time in nearly a year that the plant had shut down.

Then, for about five hours, beginning late Tuesday night, 75 percent of the warning lights on the instrument panel in the plant's control room stopped working. There were other ways to gauge the plant's operations, but the loss of the lights meant that emergency officials had to act even more cautiously in monitoring any further problems in the system, said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

No radioactive material was released, and the public was never in any danger, but the county and local officials were informed of the situation late Tuesday night, Sheehan said.

It may be at least a few days before the plant can resume operating, Spall said. In the interim, Con Edison will use other sources of energy to serve its three million customers in New York City and Westchester County.

But in what Sheehan described as a rare move, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is sending an inspection team of four experts to try to determine what went wrong at the plant, which is 35 miles north of Manhattan, in the village of Buchanan.

"We think the plant is stable now," Sheehan said late Wednesday. "But it's obviously something we want to investigate vigorously."

The situation required Indian Point officials to declare what in nuclear power parlance is called a "notification of an unusual event." That designation represents the first of four levels of emergency for a nuclear plant. And while the fourth level has been reached only once in United States history -- the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 -- the first level is rare, too. There were only two such notifications around the country in 1998, and three the previous year.

The last time the Indian Point 2 plant had to declare an "unusual event" was in December 1996, when there was a small spill of some chemicals on the site, Spall said. No one was injured.

Indian Point has had its share of mixed news in recent years. In 1994, the plant broke the world record for longest continuous operation -- 19 months -- of a light-water reactor, the kind used in the United States and most of the rest of the world. But in 1998, the plant was closed for several months because of safety concerns.

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