Doing the Unthinkable: Giant Gas Pipeline to Flank a New York Nuclear Power Plant

Doing the Unthinkable: Gas line built near nuclear power plant(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

A very large gas pipeline will soon skirt the Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC), an aging nuclear power plant that stands in the town of Cortlandt in Westchester County, New York, 30 miles north of Manhattan. The federal agencies that have permitted the project have bowed to two corporations – the pipeline’s owner, Spectra Energy, and Entergy, which bought the Indian Point complex in 2001 from its former owner.

A hazards assessment by a former employee of one of the plant’s prior owners, replete with errors, was the basis for the go-ahead. A dearth of mainstream press coverage leaves ignorant the population that stands to be most impacted by a nuclear catastrophe, which experts say could be triggered by a potential pipeline rupture. I urge Truthout’s audience to read an earlier article by Alison Rose Levy, which includes details I haven’t space to recap here.

Since 2011, Spectra Corporation, owner of the 1,129-mile Algonquin Pipeline, which runs from Texas to Beverly, Massachusetts, where it connects with another pipeline running into Canada, has sought to expand the pipeline in order to transport fracked gas north from Pennsylvania. Spectra, one of the largest natural gas infrastructure companies in North America, calls the planned enlargements “The Algonquin Incremental Market Project” (AIM).

“I have never seen a situation that essentially puts 20 million residents at risk, plus the entire economics of the US.”

AIM includes a two-mile section of 42-inch pipe carrying gas under very high pressures. It is this pipeline segment that will flank IPEC, which stands in a seismic zone. The nuclear complex has a derelict history. In 2001, The New York Times reported that “the plant has encountered a string of accidents and mishaps since it went into operation on June 26, 1973.” The IPEC has also been on the federal list of the nation’s worst nuclear power plants.

Paul Blanch is a professional engineer with nearly five decades of experience in nuclear safety, engineering operations and federal regulatory requirements. He has security clearance for his work, and is a nuclear industry proponent. He has worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission since its inception and for utility corporations across the United States, including Entergy. He also works pro bono for nuclear safety and has been doing this for the town of Cortlandt and local organizations including the grassroots group, Stop the Algonquin Pipeline Extension (SAPE), which has been fighting AIM for the past year and a half.

“I’ve had over 45 years of nuclear experience and [experience in] safety issues,” Blanch told Truthout. “I have never seen [a situation] that essentially puts 20 million residents at risk, plus the entire economics of the United States by making a large area surrounding Indian Point uninhabitable for generations. I’m not an alarmist and haven’t been known as an alarmist, but the possibility of a gas line interacting with a plant could easily cause a Fukushima type of release.”

The potential hazards of the AIM construction near IPEC are no longer hypothetical. On March 3, 2015, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the AIM project in its entirety, from New York to the Canadian border.

Explosive History

Gas explodes, as anyone knows who has read about the accident in Manhattan’s East Village this March, less than a year after a pipeline rupture triggered a gas explosion in East Harlem. In 1994, in Edison, New Jersey, a pipeline ruptured, resulting in an explosion that injured scores of people and forced the evacuation of over 2,000 people. The giant of all US gas explosions to date took place in September 2010 in San Bruno, California, killing nine people and destroying 70 homes.

Pipeline rupture is the most common cause of such accidents. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which includes among its responsibilities assessing pipeline ruptures, hasn’t yet discovered what caused the explosion in the East Village. But it determined that ruptures caused the other three. None of those pipelines were as large as the AIM pipe section. But all were in what are called “high-consequence” areas – regions where people are likely to be hurt and buildings destroyed.

No place can be of higher consequence than Indian Point. It is replete with “interactive threats.”

A decade ago the federal government made an effort to check rising gas pipeline accidents in such regions, but as my colleague’s earlier article noted, a 2015 NTSB report saw no decline. The report detailed 119 “incidents” (accidents) in 2014 in gas transmission pipelines. Noting that these were increasing in high-consequence areas, it charged that pipeline operators’ “inadequate evaluation of interactive threats” were leading them “to underestimate the true magnitude of risks to a pipeline.”

How, then, could the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) chairman and fellow commissioners have judged this project safe? No place can be of higher consequence than Indian Point. It is located in the country’s most densely populated region, a mere 30 miles north of the nation’s financial capital. It is replete with “interactive threats” – a nuclear plant, the seismic fault lying near it, 20 million citizens in New York’s metropolitan area and surrounding boroughs, a massive pipeline segment carrying gas at high pressures, and now, the federal permit allowing this project to proceed.

The dangers of gas lines close to a nuclear reactor have worried the NRC elsewhere. In 1991, the commission concluded that a rupture in a 16-inch low-pressure natural gas pipeline could pose a threat to a reactor in Colorado, even though that reactor, in a sparsely populated area of the state, had been shut down for two years. In 1991, the NRC stated that this gas line “introduced additional unanalyzed external hazards that could have affected the safe operation [of the nuclear plant].” In 2004, the commission ruled that another 16-inch pipeline near a proposed fuel processing plant in a small town, Eunice, New Mexico, did not meet the commission’s regulations. The plant was never built.

Yet a decade later, the NRC has declared the AIM project safe, and FERC’s permission for the construction invokes the NRC’s judgment that “the proposed 42-inch-diameter natural gas pipeline would not adversely impact the safe operation of the Indian Point facility.”

Blind Eyes at the Helm

The current drama represents a rerun with the same federal actors. Decades of protest have lambasted IPEC hazards. These include two 65-year-old pipelines built in 1951 before the plant was constructed. Smaller than the AIM pipeline, they come within 200 yards of the containment building. They have, said Blanch, “no maintenance requirements by Entergy.” In 1973, the Atomic Energy Commission, which later became the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, stated: “Failures of these gas lines will not impair the [reactor’s] safe operation.” In 2011, Entergy assured a reporter that the two pipelines posed no danger. For years, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has wanted to get Indian Point closed down, but NRC relicensing of the plant for another 40 years is well underway.

IPEC’s reactors are the only ones in the US where “the NRC willingly acknowledges gas pipelines come this close to nuclear plants.”

The relicensing, said Blanch, doesn’t require the NRC to assess either the two old pipelines or the new AIM enlargement, despite the fact that IPEC’s reactors are the only ones in the US where “the NRC willingly acknowledges gas pipelines come this close to nuclear plants.” AIM’s 42-inch pipe will run less than half a mile – and at one critical point only 105 feet (that’s like looking at your neighbor’s house down the street) – from the plant. At the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Florida, a 24-inch pipeline runs 4,000 feet from the plant. “There is a pipeline 300 feet from the Turkey Point nuclear plants … that has yet to be acknowledged or approved,” Blanch said.

He knows the Indian Point complex well. From 1999 to 2002, he worked for the chief nuclear officer at one of IPEC’s three reactors, continuing in that capacity after Entergy bought the plant. While New York State was opposing the plant’s relicensing from 2007 to 2012, he worked as an expert witness for the state’s attorney general. His statement to Truthout about the potential for a Fukushima-like catastrophe is almost identical with one he made in a November 14, 2014, letter to the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Advisory Committee on Nuclear Reactor Safeguards. In that letter he added, “The potential for a disaster of this magnitude demands the most thorough, independent, transparent and stringent risk analysis be conducted and reviewed before any decision is made to issue a permit for this project.”

NRC Approves Flawed Assessment

To assess the project’s risks, Entergy hired a former employee of the New York State Power Authority, one of the plant’s two prior owners before Entergy bought it. Entergy sent the assessment to the NRC in August 2014 and made it public in October. In November, Blanch submitted a petition to the NRC requesting that the commission “take enforcement action” against Entergy “for providing inaccurate and incomplete information to the NRC” and requiring that the company explain itself. “My research,” wrote Blanch in the petition, “questions the qualifications [of the document’s author] and his knowledge of risk assessment, Nuclear Regulations and natural gas transmission failures.”

Richard B. Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., retained by Cortlandt as a consultant, is a world-renowned pipeline infrastructure expert and incident investigator with over 40 years of experience in the energy industry. He, too, has security clearance for his work. In a November 3, 2014, letter to Cortlandt’s attorney, he wrote, “The Safety Evaluation and Analysis for the Indian Point Nuclear Plant (“IPEC”) submitted by Entergy concerning the risk associated with the 42-inch AIM pipeline is seriously deficient and inadequate.” He elaborates further in a letter he wrote to Blanch, part of which is cited in Blanch’s NRC petition: “Entergy’s [document] contains numerous errors that are either an attempt to deceive decision makers, or reflect an incredible lack of pipeline experience, in appreciating the real risks associated with a large 42-inch gas transmission pipeline rupture in a very sensitive area.” A 42-inch pipeline, he emphasizes, is not like 24-, 26- or 30-inch ones, “and any attempt to dismiss such a large pipeline as similar [is] extremely irresponsible.”

Unanswered Questions

Pipelines don’t explode. They rupture. When a pipe ruptures, said Kuprewicz, “usually it will take out a big segment of a pipeline and leave a big gap.” Picture such a break: a pipe with a large open space on either side of which there are two broken pipe ends jetting gas. A central error in Entergy’s NRC-approved document is that for modeling a potential pipeline rupture at Indian Point, it used an old Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) computer program called ALOHA, which the EPA itself had explicitly forbidden for use in situations like this. “ALOHA,” the EPA states, “cannot model gas release from a pipe that has broken in the middle and is leaking from both broken ends.” (The emphasis in boldface italics is the EPA’s.)

Another error: The NRC assumed that a total pipe rupture would occur in only 1 percent of pipeline accidents, but according to Blanch, references accompanying the Entergy document clearly state that total ruptures occur in 20 percent of such accidents.

“This is one of the most unusual places to site a high-pressure natural gas pipeline.”

Still another: Blanch says the NRC estimated the odds of a pipeline rupture triggering a nuclear meltdown as seven in 100 million years, an acceptable risk level according to the commission’s regulations. But when he recalculated the risk based on the 20 percent accident figure, the pipeline’s size and the velocity of the gas within it, he found the risk to be one in 1,000 years. This, he states, is “an unacceptable probability and a clear violation of NRC regulations.”

The most fundamental question for both Kuprewicz and Blanch is whether, in the event of a pipeline rupture, the nuclear reactors at Indian Point could be safely and securely shut down. “Someone needs to demonstrate that would not be a problem,” Kuprewicz told Truthout. “So far, no one’s done that.”

Calls for Independent Assessment

In a February 2015 letter, both Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) asked FERC to delay a final decision until a “thorough, independent review of all the project’s potential impacts is completed and made available to the public, with full opportunity for comment and review, including additional public meetings.” Schumer is New York State’s senior senator and the ranking (second most-senior) member of the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Administration. He also sits on the Finance and Judiciary Committees. Both Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, and New York State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef have written similar letters to both the FERC and NRC.

The FERC overruled all of these representatives of New York State’s citizens, relying on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s judgment and moving ahead on the basis of the Entergy assessment.

At a March 24 budget hearing by the House Appropriations Committee, Lowey questioned the NRC’s chairman about the Entergy assessment, at one point asking specifically about the EPA-prohibited ALOHA program. The chairman, speaking with all the NRC commissioners in attendance, never mentioned the EPA’s prohibition of that program for use in the Indian Point scenario.

Low Probabilities, Drastic Consequences

Of a possible rupture and a consequent nuclear catastrophe Kuprewicz said, “A lot of people are saying, ‘It’s a low probability event.’ I really don’t care about that. [In] my 40 years I’ve seen low probability events become high probability events because the linkage of the failures occur [sic] in such a manner they drive you to the catastrophic event. This is one of the most unusual places to site a high-pressure natural gas pipeline. I know of no other location around a nuclear plant where this is going on.”

Even after valves controlling the gas flow are shut, multiple explosions and fires can continue.

Kuprewicz said a pipeline 42 inches in diameter is almost always the largest built for gas transmission. The gas traveling through this section of the AIM pipeline will be at 850 pounds of pressure. By contrast, said Kuprewicz, the pipeline that exploded in 2010 in San Bruno was 30 inches in diameter, operating “well below 400 psig.” He adds: “I’m not saying this to instill fear in anybody, but when you go to a 42-inch at high pressures you all better know where you’re putting this pipeline.”

When such a pipeline ruptures “it … generates huge force, blows tons of steel from the pipe, ejects it from out of the ground.” From the two broken pipe ends “you’ve got these gas jets [that] form huge turbulent vapor clouds.” These usually detonate some seconds later and “generate multiple detonations and multiple heat fireballs.” Beyond the rupture, which blasts shrapnel (Kuprewicz’s term) in all directions, and beyond even the fireballs and blast forces, is the resulting heat flux, “a fancy term,” he said, “for the heat radiation … It can incinerate houses, liquefy steel, vaporize aluminum. I won’t tell you what it does to the human body.”

Three-Minute Shutdown?

Entergy’s NRC-approved document estimates that within this inferno, the gas flow could be shut down in three minutes. “There’s absolutely no basis for the number; we don’t know where it came from. It had to come either from Spectra or Entergy,” Blanch said. “A more realistic number is between 30 minutes and three hours.”

“In all the investigations I’ve done, I’ve yet to see anybody shut down a gas transmission line within three minutes,” Kuprewicz told Truthout. “Now, they may have come up with something that can do it. OK, fine. Show us. I’m telling you your answers are violating the fundamental laws of science.”

“The NRC was not really concerned about safety, but more concerned about their survival.”

In the Edison, New Jersey, explosion mentioned above, it took three hours, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, to find the rupture, and an unspecified amount of time to blow down the residual gas. In a May 2009 pipeline rupture near Palm City, Florida, it took 140 minutes to stop the gas flow. In San Bruno, it took 95 minutes. Kuprewicz compares the site of such an explosion to a battlefield, where “chaos can clog the way” first to recognizing what is happening, then to discovering the exact site of the pipeline rupture, and next to shutting down the escaping gas. Even after valves controlling the gas flow are shut, multiple explosions and fires can continue. “Given the size of this very large pipeline, it’s likely that there would be multiple explosions and fireballs,” he said.

Complicating the time factor at Indian Point is that monitoring of the AIM line won’t be on-site, but in Spectra’s control rooms in Houston, Texas. Kuprewicz said Spectra gives “the impression that [they] will actually stop the gas burning, or the gas explosions, within a three-minute time period, but they won’t see pressure drop alarms for quite a while in the control room 1,000 miles away.”

The pipeline will run within 115 feet of hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel oil needed to operate the plant and cool down the reactor cores in an emergency, and will come within about the same distance of the plant’s switchyard, where all power output proceeds from Indian Point and all power enters for emergency supply. Blanch says a pipeline rupture and ensuing explosions are likely to ignite the fuel oil, not only adding to the fires of the explosion itself, but destroying backup means of supplying power to further backup means for cooling the reactor cores. “Until we know the radius of the damage and fire duration from a rupture, no one can possibly assess the potential consequences of this horrific event, equivalent to the detonation of more than 10,000 tons of TNT,” he said. (The atomic bomb that obliterated Hiroshima was the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT.)

David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who graduated from college a few months after the March 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, has done accident training at many nuclear plants, and has also worked as a technology instructor for the NRC. “Nuclear power plants,” he told Truthout, “are pretty robust. It takes many things to go wrong for a disaster to occur like Fukushima. But a natural gas pipeline poses a threat that could challenge all of them. The biggest threat would be if the pipeline release took out the power supply of the plant. That was the big problem with Fukushima. The tsunami water took out the power and left the plant with no power [but] a few batteries.”

Industry-Compliant Agencies

Blanch, who has worked with the NRC since its inception in 1974, said it is “an agency that has a symbiotic relationship with the industry … If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission imposes [stringent] safety regulations on the industry, it could impact the economic viability of the industry and also the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself.” He said he became aware of the commission’s industry tilt when he worked as an engineering manager for Northeast Utilities, identified “a serious safety concern” and “saw where the NRC was not really concerned about safety, but more concerned about their survival.” He added, “They will provide an illusion of action; they will take very visible action against small problems, but when it comes to the big problems, they fail to take any action because of its economic impact on the industry.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is known for its industry tilt. The FERC’s mission statement describes it as “an independent agency,” but it approves most of the projects that come to its door. In December 2012, after a 3-2 vote to license another pipeline, the majority explained why so many corporations get its thumbs up:

Given the significant expense sponsors incur to prepare applications, there is no incentive for a project sponsor to present an application that cannot meet our standards for approval … the high approval rate for pipeline proposals demonstrates prudence on the part of the industry and consistency on the part of the Commission….

Translation: money talks.

In the face of determined landowner opposition, the FERC has the power to seize property through eminent domain. Weston Wilson, a 37-year EPA veteran and whistleblower, wrote in an email in late March that in Canada “eminent domain” is another word for “expropriation.”

“Now FERC has the power to expropriate private property to ship fossil fuels for profit,” wrote Wilson, adding, “There is no public interest in harming the climate for a profit – Congress erred by granting FERC eminent power – power that may destroy us.”

“Now FERC has the power to expropriate private property to ship fossil fuels for profit.”

On April 3, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and Representative Lowey wrote a letter to the FERC chair, asking the commission to rehear the project. A lawyer for residents and municipalities affected by the AIM project, and a New York-New England grassroots coalition, No Pipeline Expansion (NOPE), which includes SAPE, mentioned above, has written a petition to the FERC requesting a rehearing. Ongoing information about what concerned citizens can do is at SAPE’s website.

Of the NRC chairman’s statement to Lowey, Blanch wrote in an email: “It is incomprehensible to me that the Chairman of the NRC knowingly defended the ineptitude and lack of professionalism of the NRC Staff and Entergy [regarding] a gas line rupture within 115 feet of structures required to prevent core melting and major releases potentially impacting more than 20 million people.

“The potential energy released in one hour from these corroding 65-year-old gas lines and the newly proposed 42 inch line is equivalent to a small atomic bomb or about 30 million pounds of TNT. (Putting this in perspective, a fully loaded 747 weighs about one million pounds.) All of this within 600 feet of the reactor and more than 40 years of spent fuel. We wouldn’t allow a TNT factory in the vicinity of a nuclear plant, so why would we even consider major gas transmission lines crossing the nuclear site? Stop this insanity now.”