Investigations Continue Into Indian Point Transformer Fire And Spill

May 11, 2015

Credit Courtesy of the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

A transformer fire Saturday at the Indian Point nuclear power plant resulted in an oil spill into the Hudson River. There is differing information at this early stage about just how much material -- and what type -- seeped into the river. Meanwhile, investigations into both the fire and spill continue.

It was a dramatic scene: amateur photographers caught smoke reaching high above the Buchanan-based plant Saturday. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke Sunday at a briefing on Indian Point's Unit 3. He says that after the transformer fire was doused Saturday night, the heat ignited a second blaze that also was put out. The fire was in a non-nuclear side of the plant. Cuomo says there is no doubt that oil did escape from the transformer and no doubt that oil did go into a secondary holding tank and exceeded the tank’s roughly 80,000 gallon capacity.

“There was no doubt that oil was discharged into the Hudson River," says Cuomo. "Exactly how much we don't know. That will be part of an ongoing investigation.”

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation Commission Joe Martens said Sunday that provided the oil has been contained, cleanup should take a day or two as absorbents soak up oil and are screened off the river. He says the DEC is working with Entergy’s environmental consultants. At issue is just how much and of what material reached the Hudson River – transformer fluid and fire-suppression material. Spokeswoman for Indian Point parent Entergy Patricia Kakridas says that’s an unknown.

"Beneath the transformer there's a moat essentially that collects any oil that may have spilled out of the transformer," says Kakridas. "And initial indications are that this protective moat system worked exactly as designed and there's no evidence of transformer oil actually reaching the river in any significant quantity.”

She says the transformer fluid is dielectric fluid.

“This transformer oil, it's not diesel oil, it's not crude oil," Kakridas says. "It's clear and light. It’s almost like vegetable oil.”

And she describes the fire suppression material that was used Saturday evening.

“That foam has, from what we understand, is not environmentally harmful, but it does look like when it's dissipated it turns into an oily residue," says Kakridas.

Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay says the environmental group’s patrol boat hit the river 12 hours after the incident. He says there is no clarity as to the type of oil that leaked into the river.

“First of all, the damage to the river is already mostly done. When you put booms around an oil spill, you can contain it to some degree. Other oil has already escaped beyond the boom. Then you have the oil that goes into the air when it reacts with the surrounding atmosphere and becomes an air pollution problem," says Gallay. "The bigger issue here, frankly, is this is the third transformer explosion and fire in eight years.”

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Spokesman Neil Sheehan says there was a transformer explosion at Unit 3 in 2007 and one at Unit 2 in 2010. As for Saturday's fire:

“Our number one task, or set of tasks, would be to follow up on exactly what caused the transformer to fail, evaluate any impacts on other equipment, including electrical equipment that connects to this transformer, and then just conduct an overall review of whether we need to increase our level of inspection of the plant in response to this,” says Sheehan.

He adds:

“We'll be looking at whether there was anything they could have done beforehand to prevent this and whether there were any warning signs," says Sheehan. "Sometimes there will be some signals that a transformer is about to fail.”

Gallay says the more than 40-year-old plant should be retired.

“You have a plant this old, you continue to run it, that's a very big safety risk," says Gallay. "Enough already. It’s time to close Indian Point before it closes us.”

Entergy’s Kakridas says there is no timeframe for when Unit 3 will be back in operation. And she says that Unit 2, which is fully operational, is able to handle capacity heading into a higher energy use season. Entergy deemed the plant safe and stable throughout the fire and aftermath. The license for Indian Point 2 expired in September 2013, and for Indian Point 3, it expires December 12 this year.

Unit 3 had been shut down Thursday to repair a steam leak on the non-nuclear side of the plant and was returned to service Friday. The NRC's Sheehan says it is unlikely there is a connection between that and the transformer fire. He also doubts any impact the fire would have on relicensing.