Thursday, March 17, 2011

Duck and Cover

The Suburban Landscape
Back in the days before Google maps and TomTom, people were taken aback by my verbal directions when visiting me for the first time. “Come all the way to the top of the hill and make a right where you see the big nuclear warning siren,” I’d say blithely.  After about a decade, I’d gotten used to looking at the towering eyesore built just a few hundred yards from my house.  But I never did get used to the ear-splitting, seemingly endless four-minute-long wail that would literally rattle the windows and send my cats into kniption fits about once every few months or so.
Each of the 172 sirens in four New York counties is supposed to warn of impending nuclear disaster within a 50 mile radius of the Indian Point Power Plant – which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just named the most dangerous facility in the country, due to its long history of unplanned radioactive gaseous burps and leakage problems and a transformer explosion and proximity to a fault line. It’s not so much the earthquake risk – it’s the fact that the aging facility was built with no protections against earthquakes of any magnitude.  What a shock.
The siren’s sole message is to tell us to turn on our TVs and radios for further instructions and evacuation routes.  Basically, the only evacuation instruction is to get in the car and head north. Quick.  Fallout shelters are few and far between.  Town hall basements, that sort of thing.  Nice thought, except that along with Indian Point, even the warning sirens have had a history of malfunctioning more often than not.
Indian Point’s license is due to expire in the next few years, and the plant operator. Entergy, is seeking a 20-year extension of its operating permit. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, long an opponent of the plant, is using the NRC report and Japan crisis to renew his call for shutting it down for good. The only trouble is, the state has no plan on how to replace the electricity that Indian Point now generates to an estimated 25 percent of New York City and its immediate environs.
 “Gov. Cuomo’s post-closure plans are laid out in one sentence: ‘We must find and implement alternative sources of energy generation and transmission to replace the electricity currently supplied by the Indian Point facility’ he wrote in his 170-page Cleaner Greener New York report.” (Rockland Journal News, 3/16/11).
Without replacing the energy provided by Indian Point, experts warn, the existing grids will become overloaded, and we can expect roving blackouts to prevent a full system crash.  And even with that precaution, we may experience a full system crash.
What I don’t hear being talked about during this latest nuclear power plant debate is the danger of transporting nuclear waste on our crumbling highway and bridge system.  The NRC and NTSB have strict standards, of course, for the transport of hazardous materials. Here is part of a lesson plan they provide to schools about how they keep us safe: "The spent fuel must be shipped in heavy casks, weighing from 20 to 100 tons, depending on the mode of transportation (truck, barge, or train) but all must pass a series of severe tests, such as: A collision with an immovable object, like being dropped thirty feet onto reinforced concrete; being dropped 40 inches onto a steel spike; being burned in a hot fire for 30 minutes; submersion in water for eight hours."
I'm no scientist, but what would happen if a tractor trailer carrying spent fuel ended up hundreds of feet below water for more than eight hours?  Given the abysmal state of our infrastructure, I think we should worry more about collapsing bridges than short-range impalations on spikes.
I'll never forget an interview I did with the director of my county’s Civil Defense Department in 1979 after the Three Mile Island disaster. The population was in near-panic mode, and my main assignment was to find out where to go, the location of fallout shelters in the area, symptoms of radiation poisoning, and so on.  Besides scoring the scoop that my county building had a previously unpublicized luxurious underground bunker designed to house and feed bigwig officials in the event of a nuclear disaster (complete with decontamination showers and a cafeteria with wall-length murals of peaceful outdoor scenes to stave off claustrophobia), the director told me about unregulated nuclear waste being transported over the Hudson River bridges by sleep-deprived truckers. We should be more worried about the nukes on our roadways than in our power plants, he warned.
Here is the official NRC map of where the nukes travel, by road and by rail. Nowadays, by law, the big rigs have to display warning logos prominently on their vehicles.  No doubt, seeing these graphics will keep us all safe as we careen down the interstates at a legal 65 mph.

See America First

Honk if You Like My Driving!

Mr. Atom, Cuddly Mascot of the NRC
 Meanwhile, the Republican Congress wants to deciminate the Environmental Protection Agency and its ability to monitor our air quality, and President Obama takes a quick few seconds  to tell us to help Japan as he fills out his March Madness basketball picks.  But at least we no longer have a president who talks about “nukular” crap. That would be just too much to bear.


Draft Spitzer said...

Thanks much for this post. I lived in NY for over a decade and didn't learn as much about Indian Point as I just did reading this brief piece.
Maybe a good thing to follow up on...? The
highway/nuclear waste situation is terrifying.

Also So terrified for everyone in Japan.

Marina said...

Thanks for writing this.

I also just read your column (o.k., your comment, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a column), regarding Krugman's column--amazing! I'm glad you started building your brand, as it were, before the Times' pay wall kicks in.

Draft Spitzer said...

My comment recommending that Burns and Garcia could replace Brooks' slots was submitted last night, but appears to have hit the cutting room floor at the Times.
I note that Burns made a comment to Paul K. about a Hooverville initiative in DC. I'd first heard that on Garcia's blog, and was glad to see it picked up by someone else.

Marina said...

There's a nice series of takedowns of Our Mr. Brooks on Balloon Juice this morning--don't miss the comments!

Anonymous said...

Bob Hubert is in favor of shutting down nuclear power in general and Indian Point in particular. I think that you in the NYC area should try it first so the rest of us can see how it turns out. I understand that you will loose about 30% of the power in NYC with no local means of replacing the loss. It will be interesting to see how you reduce your usage to make up the loss.


Draft Spitzer said...

Okay, Richard, I'll take your bait. As an ex-New Yorker, I know it would be all TOO EASY to reduce power consumption by 30% simply by adjusting the overly heated buildings in winter, and the overly cooled offices and subways in summer.
I used to have to bring a thick cashmere sweater with me to ride the subway in summer. Not to mention for the chilly summertime office. I used minimal a/c in my own apartment, which made me unusual in NY, where people famously A/C even their empty apartments. They were trained to do that; they can be UNTRAINED.
Being an all-weather runner, my body adjusted easily to extreme heat and cold. Most of the other runners and cyclists I knew in New York experienced a similar "liberty" from A/C.
You should try it... You might surprise yourself at what you can handle when you stop being a princess.
Just kidding, Richard (about the pricess part, but entirely serious about the activity part, and how easy it would be for New Yorkers to reduce electric power consumption.

menckenist said...

Karen: I was going to ask why you keep beating your head against the NYTimes seeming indifference to voices outside the hive but then again the Times letters section brought me to your blog (just before the paywall) so apparently there's some usefulness there.

If you read Glenn Greenwald, he's posted a column on how the media in Japan has protected the government and the nuclear power industry much the same way they do here.

In the older neighborhoods you can still see the fading metal 'fallout shelter' signs still clinging to old brickwork. They were as usless then as now. I'm reminded of the scene in Dr. Strangelove where the President is asked whether he should activate Civil Defense. He shakes his head dismissively. That brief encounter spoke volumes and still does.

Anonymous said...

I was being serious! If you folks in the big city can adjust to the reduction in electricity then some of the other sub-standard power plants can be shut down too!
Indian point is run by about the dumbest power company in the U.S.! They are the people that burned out their conventional steam electric generators in the great blackout of '65 because the oil system for the generator bearings wasn't on the backup power bus!

Personally we live "off the grid" on solar so I'm reasonably "green" for a Conservative.

Draft Spitzer said...

Well, Richard, I'd say that living "off the grid on solar" makes you a lot greener than me - and greener than most Times readers.
How long you been doing that for? Was it costly to switch?

Anonymous said...

I built the house around 5 years ago and we didn't switch there are no utilities there. It cost about one hundred dollars per Sq Ft to build the house including the solar. The low cost is a result of a lot of DYI. Solar is about 1/2 the cost now of what it was when we put the system in 4 years ago. Currently you can put in a grid tie system for about $4/Watt and receive a federal tax credit and a credit from ConEd if they offer one that will cover about 80% of the system.

FYI we didn't qualify for the credit because the house is not in the U.S.


Draft Spitzer said...

Good for you for making the investment!

John said...

The bigger worry - even apart from spent fuel rods and where to store them - is spent reactor shells. They remain radioactive for thousands of years, but aren't built to last nearly that long and can't be torn down without releasing ungodly amounts of radiation.

What did Keynes say? In the long run we're all dead? Unfortunately what's long run for us is the short run for those in the future. Or those living along a fault line in Japan. Or, heaven forbid, downwind from Indian Point.