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Agency to check review of gas pipeline at NY nuclear plant after report

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Agency to check review of gas pipeline at NY nuclear plant after report

The chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered a review of its safety analysis of a natural gas pipeline near Entergy Corp.'s Indian Point nuclear plant in New York after the NRC's inspector general said the staff review was flawed and might need to be redone.

The inspector general's report, made public Feb. 26, also said the NRC missed an opportunity to correct the flaws when it rejected a subsequent petition from consultants for the town of Cortlandt, N.Y., that sought to reverse the agency's conclusions.

The NRC's 2014 review of the 42-inch-diameter Algonquin Incremental Market pipeline expansion, developed by Enbridge Inc.'s Algonquin Gas Transmission LLC to upgrade the Algonquin pipeline system and ease gas constraints in New England, was the basis for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval of that project in 2015 and subsequent decisions confirming the approval. The pipeline project, which added gas transportation capacity of 342 MMcf/d, went into service in January 2017. A federal appeals court upheld the FERC approval in July 2018, saying among other things that FERC had adequately considered safety issues related to the nuclear plant.

On Feb. 24, NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki directed agency staff to examine whether any immediate action should be taken in response to the inspector general's report and determine within 45 days whether the original analysis or the response to the petition should be changed. Svinicki also told staff to study whether any modifications to agency practice or procedures are needed.

A first review of NRC staff concerns determined that no immediate action needs to be taken by the agency, Margaret Doane, the executive director of operations, said in a letter to commissioners dated Feb. 26.

Prior to service on the expanded pipeline, New York state officials questioned the safety of having a pipeline pass close to the nuclear plant site, saying a leak or explosion could threaten the operation of the two reactors comprising Indian Point. Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3, each with nameplate capacities of over 1,000 MW, are scheduled to permanently close within the next year. About 2,300 feet of the Algonquin pipeline cross the Indian Point plant property "about a quarter-mile" from the reactors, NRC officials have said.

Paul Blanch, a nuclear engineer from Connecticut who has been challenging the NRC analysis for seven years, said he was gratified that the inspector general supported his contention that the review "was nothing but a fabrication." The culture of the NRC and FERC must be changed so they do not always agree with industry requests, Blanch said.

Blanch had filed a petition for enforcement action, which the inspector general's report said the NRC rejected based on a second analysis of the pipeline risk that was inconsistent and potentially nonconservative. Blanch subsequently petitioned the NRC again to take action against Entergy for submitting inaccurate information, including a statement that the pipeline could be shut within three minutes of a potential leak.

Entergy has stood by its safety analysis of risks from the pipeline, but it is reviewing the inspector general's report to see if there is any new information, plant spokesperson Jerry Nappi said.

FERC approved the pipeline in March 2015, relying in part on the NRC review, then decided in March 2016 not to halt construction of the pipeline when New York state agencies began an independent safety review. A FERC spokesperson did not immediately reply for a request for comment on the NRC announcement.

The inspector general's report found that the NRC study had contained inaccuracies and that a modeling tool an NRC scientist used to perform an independent analysis of risk from a gas explosion to the nuclear plant was not designed for that purpose. FERC documents on the matter portrayed the NRC analysis as "significantly more conservative that it actually was," meaning FERC described the analysis as more definitive about safety than was actually the case, the inspector general said.

Several NRC senior managers agreed after discussions with the inspector general's office that it would be prudent to complete another analysis. "I have questions about how well we validated their analysis, so I think we have more work to do," a top agency official, who was not named, said in the inspector general's report.

William Freebairn is a reporter for S&P Global Platts. S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Platts are owned by S&P Global Inc.