Some people will attempt to contort any issue into a reason to avoid the use of nuclear energy. On October 26, 2010, NPR published an Associated Press story titled Concerns Raised Over Pipeline Near Indian Point that describes how Paul Blanch, a man described as “an energy consultant from West Hartford, Conn.” has filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission questioning the safety of natural gas pipelines that run “within a few hundred feet” of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Station.
Apparently, Mr. Blanch is worried about the potential damage to the plant that could result if the pipelines just happened to spring a leak in the short section that runs relatively close to the nuclear power plant.
It’s a low probability event,” said Blanch of a rupture of one of the pipes. “But the consequences are unimaginable.”
Those worries have “been heightened since a large pipeline in San Bruno, Calif. ruptured and exploded in September, killing eight people and destroying 37 homes.” As the article points out, the natural gas pipelines that run relatively close to Indian Point carry twice as much gas as those that exploded underneath a residential neighborhood in San Bruno.
Blanch has worked to gather an interesting chorus to support his contention that the NRC should expend resources to investigate the hazard of a pipeline whose existence has been known since before Indian Point was built in the first place.
David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, agrees with Blanch that the pipeline issue needs to be explored. He helped Blanch draft his petition.
“This is not to say that this pipeline is a hazard, there may be a good analysis that shows it is not,” said Lochbaum in an interview. “But until these questions are answered it is a potential hazard that needs to be looked into.”
Here is where I get really suspicious of motives. Natural gas pipelines that run close to Indian Point also run close to countless other vulnerable buildings – after all, pipelines in the Northeast are not isolated points of hazard. They traverse hundreds of miles, often through densely populated areas. If they are vulnerable to leaking and exploding, the probability that they will just happen to leak in the few hundred feet that is near a nuclear plant fades in comparison with the probability of a leak anywhere else in their path.
The sites of operating nuclear plants are not heavily populated areas. The plants are well staffed to respond to fires and they are not particularly flammable. Even the San Bruno fire, as tragic as it was, showed that structures that were several hundred feet away from the pipeline rupture were not damaged. On any rational measure it seems that the existence of a nuclear generating facility several hundred feet away from a gas pipeline should be a topic of minimal concern.
The San Bruno explosion demonstrated that it is logical to worry about the effect of a leak from a gas pipeline. A rational observer however, would worry far more about people who live and/or work very close to pipelines, not about a protected nuclear power facility that is a relatively safe distance away from the pipe.
If local residents listen to people like Lochbaum and Blanch and view this as just one more reason to work against the relicensing of Indian Point, the concerns about the natural gas pipeline vulnerability exposed by the San Bruno tragedy could actually increase the need to move natural gas via pipeline. Replacing the electricity currently produced by Indian Point would require transporting an additional 300-400 million cubic feet of natural gas per day into power plants that supply the grid providing electricity to New York City.
If the San Bruno natural gas conflagration truly scared Blanch and Lochbaum, why would they use that fear to focus more concerns on the continued operation of the Indian Point Nuclear Plant? That power facility reduces the dependence on high pressure, high volume gas pipelines! Of course, I know the answer to that question – they both have a long history of fighting against the use of nuclear energy with every tool that they can find.
In related news, professional anti-nuclear organizations have been granted intervenor status in proceedings related to the Comanche Peak nuclear power station expansion project. They have filed petitions with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board for six new contentions challenging the commission’s initial finding that there are no environmental grounds that would preclude licensing the two additional units.
One of the contentions is that the NRC did not fully consider the environmental implications of following an alternative path to building the new plants. That is one of the requirements of the National Energy Policy Act; the Environmental Impact Statements that the act requires must consider the environmental effect of other ways of meeting the same goals as the project being considered.
Here is the reason I consider this to be related news.
In a motion filed Sept. 7 with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, opponents outline the six contentions they want considered. They say that the commission’s environmental statement failed to give sufficient consideration to alternatives to additional nuclear reactors, such as increased generation from wind, solar and natural gas, and expanded efficiency programs.
The contentions also question whether nuclear power is an economically feasible option, given its high capital costs and the potential for sustained low natural gas prices. In Texas and many other states, natural gas-fired generation drives pricing in electricity markets.
That drumbeat continues. Pay attention – the gas industry is working hard to hook you on their product and make you believe that the prices will remain low forever. Their marketing arms were saying the same thing throughout the 1990s, but this is what actually happened to gas prices. Beware of accepting the conventional wisdom provided by pushers with a motive to encourage addiction.
This analysis, conduced for the National Energy Technology Laboratory and published in April of 2008 is also worth reading. Natural Gas and Electricity Costs and Impacts on Industry