If you live in—or anywhere near—the county, you know Indian Point Energy Center. You’ve undoubtedly seen its cylindrical, domed reactors rising on the banks of the Hudson in stark contrast to the natural landscape enveloping them. Indian Point has been casting a dubious shadow ever since the three plants comprising the center (one has since been shut down) went online in the ’70s. Critics, who want Indian Point shut down, point to the security concerns it brings to the city (as it’s only 40 miles upstream) and the need for more environmentally friendly energy sources. Backers counter with its economic benefits (supplying more than 1,000 jobs and generating $1.3 billion of annual economic output to local counties, $1.6 billion statewide, and $2.5 billion across the United States), its efficiency (its operation prevented the emission of 8.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by nixing the need for coal-burning plants), and the $100 million it spent on security upgrades since 9/11. Oh, and that it supplies 10 percent of the state’s energy needs—generating 2,061 megawatts of around-the-clock electricity for New York homes—and delivers a quarter of all of Westchester and New York City’s energy.
Nonetheless, we wanted to see for ourselves what’s going on inside those domes. So, step inside with us, through the concentric layers of security (think airport security on steroids, with more and more pat-downs and detectors as you get closer), and take a guided tour of the Buchanan facility.
This is the massive generator through which flows the steam from the containment vessel. The steam turns the turbine within it, producing electricity. For scale, see the two men climbing down a scaffold to the side.
The containment vessel houses the fuel assemblies. Water flows over the fuel assemblies, heating the water to 570 degrees. This hot water transfers its heat to a separate system of colder water to make steam that spins a turbine-generator to make electricity. This steam is condensed back into water to go through the heating cycle in a repeat loop. Cool water from the Hudson River is used to condense steam back into water. The system that carries river water and the circuit that carries steam never mix, so the river water circuit never comes into contact with nuclear products. To prevent the water from boiling, the reactor system is pressurized—more than 2,200 pounds per square inch. To contain this pressure, the steel and concrete walls of the containment building are 3.5 to 4.5 feet thick, built with reinforced steel, pressurized 47 pounds per square inch.
This is an exact replica of the control room. Everything is the exact same as you’ll find in the actual control room; if a piece of equipment is out of service for repair in the actual control room, they’ll remove it from service here, as well. Once every five weeks, plant operators go through a week of training, preparing for any type of scenario—emergency or non-emergency—that may require a response by operators. At the end of the week, they’re tested, and need to pass with an 80 or above to return to work.
When pumping water from the river, some smaller fish can be sucked in. The plant utilizes these white structures, which are screens, to protect fish from entering its system. The screens catch the fish, which fall onto a rotating ledge, and are then washed back into the river, away from the pumps.
The transformer outside the reactor. The transformers increase the voltage of the electricity produced by the generator. These three lines pictured are enough to power 1 million homes—about 1,000 megawatts.
Bottom right: Each operating unit at Indian Point (unit 2 and unit 3) has four installed backup generators—though only one is needed to provide cooling in a loss of offsite electrical power. These generators start up automatically should the plant lose power from the grid.
This silver part of the generator is the axle, which is the part that spins once it’s blasted with the steam. It spins at a rate of 1,800 rpm, producing 22,000 volts.
As part of its $100 million security upgrade, Indian Point added these secondary defensive positions. The bulletproof steel boxes—with sliding window eyesights—allow security to fire at a potential target that may have breached all other layers of security.
This is no swimming pool: It’s 35 years of spent nuclear waste. This 30-by-35-foot pool contains all assembly rods removed from the containment vessel. Each fuel assembly lasts for four years, so every two years, one of the reactors is shut down for re-fueling. The spent waste is placed into this 40-foot-deep pool, with nearly 25 feet between the top of the water and the rods. The water cools the fuel and acts as a buffer from radiation.
These green structures are pumps. The plant pumps about 2.5 billion gallons of water from the Hudson—about 1.5 percent of the daily tidal exchange of the river—into its cooling system. The water is then pumped back into the river, and, though it’s used to produce steam, is returned into the river at no more than 4 degrees warmer than it came out.
A model of a fuel assembly. One hundred and ninety-three of these fuel assemblies—built 12 feet high each and 8 inches square—are housed in a reactor vessel inside a containment building (those are the domes you see). Each fuel assembly contains 204 rods that are filled with pencil eraser-sized uranium pellets. About 9 million or so pellets are in each containment vessel within a space of 10 feet by 10 feet by 12 feet, and undergo fission, which makes heat.
After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Indian Point built what is known as a flex room. It’s located at the highest point on the grounds to prevent any flooding should the river rise, and it’s built to sustain hurricane force winds and projectiles thrown by a tornado. It houses additional backup generators, pumps, and everything else the plant would need to sustain itself for 48 hours in the case of an extreme natural weather event.