Indian Point Nuclear Plant Can Withstand Seismic Activity, Officials Say

The aftermath of Japan’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake continued to worsen this weekend after power shut down a cooling system at a nuclear power plant close to Onahama.

Radiation levels inside the Fukushima Daiichi facility surged to 1,000 times more than normal, and some radiation escaped from the plant.

Japan's nuclear plant leak has moved many to consider what would happen in New York should seismic activity occur near the Indian Point nuclear plant in Buchanan, which is about 45 miles from Times Square. The company that owns it, Entergy, said its facility is secure in the face of seismic motion.

"The reactor itself is an incredibly strong vessel," said the plant's spokesman, Jerry Nappi. "It's a tank that's 10 feet-by-10 feet-by-40 feet. And that reactor vessel sits inside the containment dome. That containment dome is one of the strongest structures built by men."

The containment dome is made of concrete that's four-to-six-feet thick and reinforced by steel rebar.

"That's about as thick as my forearm," Nappi said. "It's intended to keep any sort of steam inside."

Indian Point is also built to include a safe shut-down mechanism in the event of earth shifting that stops nuclear reaction in seconds. Control rods stop the nuclear fission process and core cooling mechanisms turn on to keep the plant from heating up. Should electricity go out in the area, sets of diesel generators and batteries kick in to power running water.

There are also mechanisms in place to prevent Uranium from leaking. “The Uranium pellets are about the size of a pencil eraser," Nappi said. "The pellets are clad with a ceramic coating to keep the Uranium from being in contact with the water.”

Nappi said New York tends to be a practically non-seismic region.

"The worst postulated earthquake for this region is many times smaller than what occurred in Japan. And of course, there’s no threat of a tsunami in our region," he said.

All commercially owned nuclear plants in the U.S. are regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (N.R.C.).

"The plants need to be able to withstand the most severe natural phenomena historically for the area in which they would exist," said Diane Screnci, commission spokesperson for the Northeast region.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reexamined the role of preparedness first after the accident in 1979 in Three Mile Island," Screnci said. "And we have enhanced our focus on that area since then. Also, the events of 9/11 prompted a new focus on the events of emergency preparedness."

The commission said it was constantly fine-tuning its emergency preparedness procedures.

“It’s another area that we look at continuously,” Screnci said. “If there’s no new information to evaluate, we’ll look at it and decide whether we need to have additional requirements.”

The two units running at Indian Point were built in 1974 and 1976. The facility provides 1,000 megawatts of electricity. That's enough power for 2 million households, or 25 percent of the houses in New York City.

The last time New York felt a major disturbance was New Year’s Day of 1966, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The quake damage, which was felt in a 46,500-square-kilometer area, caused plaster to fall at the Attica State Prison and the main smokestack to be damaged. 

A 3.9-magnitude earthquake occurred in the Atlantic Ocean last November, about 80 miles off the coast of Southhampton on Long Island.