By Scott DiSavino and Lisa Lambert
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A nuclear power reactor 40 miles (65 km) north of New York City was shut down on Saturday after a transformer fire, but officials said the Indian Point plant was stable and there was no threat to residents nearby.
People in the area reported an explosion and smoke coming from the plant at Buchanan in New York state. But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the fire had been quickly extinguished.
"These events happen occasionally. They are not unheard of and the plant responded as designed," NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said in a statement. He added the fire occurred at 5:50 p.m. (2150 GMT) and was put out 25 minutes later.
The NRC designated the incident an "unusual event," which is the lowest of four categories the agency gives to potential safety or security threats at nuclear plants.
Entergy Corp, which runs the facility and is one of the largest U.S. nuclear power operators, also said the plant was stable and there was no danger to the public or to employees.
Several police units responded to the plant after receiving emergency calls from people who heard an explosion and saw smoke over the facility, which is on the east bank of the Hudson River, said New York State police spokesman Kenneth Bozier. No injuries were reported.
The transformer fire, which triggered the closure of the plant's Unit 3 reactor, was extinguished with no damage to the unit, an Entergy spokesman said. The other Unit 2 reactor continued to operate, spokesman Jerry Nappi said.
He said there was no information yet as to what caused the transformer failure. On Friday, Entergy returned the 1,031-megawatt Unit 3 back to service after shutting it down the previous day to repair a steam leak on the non-nuclear side of the plant.
The fire was put out by the sprinkler system at the transformer and on-site personnel, he said. The transformers are located around 300-400 feet (90-120 meters) away from the reactor.
Emergency sirens in the area did not sound following the incident, Nicholas Zachary, a governing trustee in the village of Buchanan, said in a phone interview.
"I don?t foresee any kind of issue," he said. "It?s happened before, they?ll get it fixed and back and running fairly soon I imagine."
Disruptions to power in the New York City area were unlikely. Power plants often trip off, and the power shortfall is met by other plants on the grid.
EXPLOSION FOLLOWED BY SMOKE
Witnesses took to Twitter to report hearing an explosion and photographs posted on the site showed large plumes of grey and black smoke billowing from the plant.
"I was a mile away from Indian Point when the transformer explosion occurred. Yikes...," said one Twitter user, Kevin Daly.
But some local residents were apparently unaware of the incident. A woman named Crystal who answered the phone at Fat Sal?s Bar & Grill, about a mile away from the plant, said she neither heard the explosion or knew anything about it.
The plant, whose origin dates back to the 1960s, has around 1,000 employees and has long been controversial because of its proximity to the largest U.S. city.
It is one of 99 nuclear power plants licensed to operate in the United States and which generate about 20 percent of U.S. electricity use, according to the NRC's website.
Large transformer explosions or fires are unusual but not unheard of, with rarely more than one or two a year occurring. While they can be shocking to witness, recent incidents have caused minimal disruption at the facilities.
In early 2009, for instance, Exelon Corp's Oyster Creek nuclear power station in New Jersey resumed operations three days after a transformer fire. In December 2013, another transformer fire triggered the temporary closure of a unit at Entergy's Arkansas nuclear power plant. Neither caused any injuries or public health risks.
But Saturday's blast may fuel the debate surrounding the expiration of the 40-year operating licenses for its two remaining reactors.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and others have long called for the plant?s closure because it is so close to New York City, though state authorities have little sway over the federally regulated nuclear sector. Cuomo's efforts have been more muted lately, however.
The licence for Unit 2 expired in 2013 and Unit 3 will expire at the end of this year. Both continue operating during the NRC review process, which may take several more years.
Several environmental groups have called for the plant to be permanently shut down.
(Reporting by Scott DiSavino, Victoria Cavaliere, Lisa Lambert, Jonathan Leff, Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Frances Kerry; Editing by Christian Plumb)