By Michelle Nichols
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A review of the earthquake threat and other safety risks posed by a New York nuclear plant must be done as part of its bid to keep operating for another 20 years, New York state's attorney general said on Friday.
The Indian Point plant, owned by Entergy Corp, is only about 40 miles north of New York City on the banks of the Hudson River -- close enough to pose a threat if it were to suffer a breakdown on the scale that Japan is experiencing.
"While the possibility of an intense earthquake is relatively low, the potential for harm is so catastrophic that it has to be taken into account," said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a long time critic of the plant.
Entergy is seeking new operating permits for its two reactors, which are due to expire in 2013 and 2015. The plant supplies up to one-third of the power used by New York City and an alternative supply would be needed if it were shut down.
Schneiderman told a news conference that the relicensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission should not go ahead without the health and safety risk assessment and that he was prepared to take legal action to ensure it was carried out.
"We have to do everything we can to protect the health, safety and environment of the 20 million people living near Indian Point," he said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it would review Schneiderman's request, but noted that efforts to change regulations generally takes months if not years and were unlikely to halt a permit renewal process.
"The NRC continues to believe that ALL U.S. plants are meeting the agency's strict requirements to withstand a reactor site's strongest earthquake, as indicated by examination of thousands of years of that site's geologic record," said NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.
President Barack Obama said on Thursday he had ordered a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear facilities.
New York state is currently challenging Entergy's efforts to extend the plant's operating permits, and has said it must build giant cooling towers rather than dispense warm water into the Hudson River, where it can threaten wildlife.
That would be prohibitively expensive, Entergy has said, and would not make economic sense. It also said the plant was built to withstand an earthquake up to magnitude 6.0 and that the largest earthquake in the area had been a 5.2 in 1884.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has also been a critic of Indian Point and he seized on Nuclear Regulatory Commission data that this week showed Indian Point was the most vulnerable of the nation's approximately 100 commercial reactors.
But John Durso, New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance executive director, said: "For more than 30 years, independent experts have studied seismic related issues about Indian Point and continually found the facility to be safe."
The worst nuclear power accident in U.S. history happened at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 when the core began to melt through a combination of personnel error, design deficiencies and component failures.
There were no injuries and no radiation releases that exceeded the plant's environmental limits.
(Editing by Greg McCune)