NEW YORK (Reuters) - New worries about a New York nuclear plant's vulnerability to earthquakes could hand the state's governor an opportunity to try to close the plant, but New York City's huge power needs could stall any such moves.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has long been a critic of the Indian Point plant owned by Entergy Corp, called for a review of its safety this week after new data showed it was the most vulnerable nuclear plant in the country to damage from an earthquake.
That will likely put more pressure on the plant as its owners seek to win new operating permits for its two reactors, which are otherwise due to expire in 2013 and 2015.
Stoking the fears are the images of helicopters dumping water on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, which was badly damaged after an earthquake and tsunami last Friday.
While Entergy insists Indian Point is safe, it sits only about 40 miles north of New York City on the banks of the Hudson River -- close enough to pose a threat if it were to suffer a breakdown on the scale that the Japanese plant is now experiencing. The company said it would review its safety procedures in light of recent events.
"Those us who have been talking about Indian Point for a long time have said it should never have been sited there in the first place and now (Entergy) is asking to extend the license for another 20 years." said Arnie Gunderson, a 29-year veteran of the nuclear industry and current chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates Inc in Burlington, Vermont
U.S. officials have said Japan has been too slow to extend an evacuation order around the Daiichi plant, and that if such an accident occurred in the United States, the nuclear regulator would call for an evacuation of people from 50 miles around the site.
For Indian Point, that would mean emptying New York City and the densely packed communities that border it. That could severely disrupt global financial markets as Wall Street would be paralyzed and even satellite financial centers such as the hedge fund capital Greenwich, in Connecticut, would have to evacuate.
The state is currently challenging Entergy's efforts to extend the plant's operating permits, and has said it must build giant cooling towers rather than dispense warm water into the Hudson River, where it can threaten wildlife.
That would be prohibitively expensive, Entergy has said, and would not make economic sense.
But the state may find it difficult to shut off the plant that supplies as much as one-third of the power used by New York City.
Retiring Indian Point in 2015 without adding new power plants, would result in the "loss of power supply and transmission voltage support affecting the metropolitan New York region," the New York Independent System Operator, which runs New York's power grid, said last year.
Building new power generation in New York is no easy task, since adding any type of fossil fuel-based plants would run afoul of federal clean air rules, and renewable sources such as wind power are not yet mature enough to supply the type of steady, baseload power produced by reactors.
The permitting process in New York can also be onerous, since the state has not replaced a law that simplified the procedure but expired in 2002.
Still, Cuomo seized on data from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week that showed Indian Point was the most vulnerable of the nation's approximately 100 commercial reactors.
Although the region does not typically suffer from strong earthquakes, the plant does sit near a fault line, putting its chances of suffering core damage at about 1 in 10,000 each year.
An energy advisor to former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer criticized Cuomo's campaign against the plant.
"I can say that plant has been overbuilt for what earthquake challenges have been imagined and it's not a tsunami risk," said Steve Mitnick, president of a Build Energy America, a coalition of utilities and energy companies.
If Cuomo wants to close the plant, "he should say in the very same sentence, 'we're going to need to build X number of power plants and transmission lines to replace it'," he said.
LAST EXIT TO NYC
The NRC safety plans call for an immediate 10-mile radius evacuation in the event of a nuclear accident, and would expand that if an incident were serious.
That would require protecting the 8.5 million residents of the city, a task that city officials believe is feasible.
"If we needed to, New York City is prepared to evacuate in that incident," said Chris Gilbride, spokesman for the city's Office of Emergency Management.
The city has drawn up two types of evacuation plans, one for big coastal storms including a worst-case scenario that would see 2.3 million people evacuated and sheltering 600,000 people.
The other type is an all-purpose plan designed for each neighborhood. Should a citywide evacuation be needed, officials would activate all of the neighborhood plans, Gilbride said.
Despite the complications of moving large numbers of people, New York was well-prepared because of its vast rail, bus and ferry networks used for everyday commuting, Gilbride said.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York and Eileen O'Grady in Houston)
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