Thursday, November 30, 2000

Response at last at Indian Point

It's about time Consolidated Edison officials take action to prevent another radioactive leak at the Indian Point 2 power plant in Buchanan -- a mishap that recently earned the plant a warning in the form of the first-ever ''red'' citation from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Even more significantly, the commission itself is beginning to correct procedures that led to its failure to prevent a radioactive leak at the plant earlier this year.

On Feb. 15, a tube in one of Indian Point 2's steam generators cracked, leaking superheated radioactive water. While only a small amount of discharge seeped into the atmosphere, it was the worst accident in the reactor's 26-year history.

In April, the NRC started ranking increasing risk with colors, going from green, white and yellow to red, which is ''an issue of high safety significance.'' Indian Point 2's red citation is the most serious violation cited at any of the nation's 103 nuclear reactors. ''It puts the owners closer to the point where we could say, 'You have to cease operations if you continue to show signs of poor performance,' '' said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan. ''They're going to have to really demonstrate to us that they can learn from what's occurred in the past.''

Consolidated Edison officials initially opposed making permanent fixes to the plant. In fact, Consolidated Edison executives have finally agreed to replace the plant's aging steam generators, after considerable public pressure was brought to bear on their initial refusal. More significantly, spokesman Chris Olert says the utility is ''constantly revising'' its standards for notifying public authorities about any emergencies.

Regulatory commission also bears responsibility

That's important because local and state officials said they were kept in the dark about the Indian Point 2 leak. Some said they only heard about it hours later, from news media. Neither President Clinton nor Gov. George Pataki were notified, even though both of them maintain homes within the ''emergency planning zone'' -- in Westchester and Putnam counties, respectively.

But NRC officials mustn't forget the fact their own office of inspector general has criticized the commission for inadequate oversight at Indian Point. A report issued in September found the rupture could have been prevented had the NRC not ignored the technical findings of a 1997 inspection.

On Nov. 16, the commission released a detailed plan for addressing the inspector general's concerns. ''We will be increasing the level of communication between the people that are inspecting the steam generators for the utility and our inspectors so we have a much better grasp on what are the problems inside these generators,'' said NRC spokesman Sheehan. ''It may be cold comfort to some of the people concerned about what happened last February, but we want to do our best to make sure we take some valuable lessons away from all this.''

It's good the utility is already taking steps to prevent such an event from recurring. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission also follows through on revising its own procedures, the public ought to find some reassurance that when inspections turn up potential problems they will be addressed immediately.

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