News / Resources / Scientific Concepts

“Debate rages on nuclear safety” by Dan Sharpley

About this special report
This special report is based on the analysis of numerous documents and studies related to Indian Point nuclear reactors, and nuclear power in general; on interviews with scores of officials and experts; and on a tour of the Indian Point Energy Center. All photos were approved by Indian Point’s management and do not compromise its security. The graphics were created so as not to reveal sensitive details.

Project staff
Project editor: John Ferro
Presentation editor: Kathleen Dijamco
Art director: Dean DiMarzo
Photo and graphics director: Spencer Ainsley
Staff writers: Nik Bonopartis, Maeleeke Lavan, Dan Shapley, Craig Wolf
News editor: James Konrad
Executive editor: Margaretta A. Downey
Managing editor: Richard L. Kleban

In late summer of 2001, Entergy Nuclear Northeast issued a press release destined for the dust bins of history.
The New Orleans energy company had completed the purchase of Indian Point’s three nuclear reactors in Buchanan, Westchester County, 35 miles north of Manhattan.

Its announcement came Sept. 6.

Five days later, American Airlines Flight 11 flew over Indian Point en route to a kamikaze strike at the World Trade Center. Terrorists — and terror itself — have now put Entergy, and its plant, at the center of a raging, and historic, debate.

The argument centers around whether emergency plans will protect people who live near the plant, a question all agree is important given that Indian Point lies in a region of 11.8 million people.

At stake is a precedent that could extend beyond Indian Point.

If there was a catastrophic accident or a successful terrorist attack on Indian Point, the worst estimates are devastating — thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars in damage.

Most agree the chances for a doomsday-type disaster are remote.

Under Entergy’s management, the plant is, by most accounts, safer and better run than it has been in years.

It produces power for millions with a only a wisp of the air pollution emitted by neighboring power plants on the Hudson.

It employs 1,500 — nearly one third of whom live in Dutchess County.

However, longtime opponents — and a host of new ones — have never been closer to seeing it shut down.

Driven by the threat of terrorism and the emotional fallout of the Sept. 11 attacks, Indian Point’s opponents have pushed an old debate to the front pages of newspapers, and the front steps of the state and federal government.

Emergency planning must pass muster at the federal level before a plant’s operating license can be renewed.

Many have criticized federal security benchmarks, and no nuclear power plant has ever been closed because of faulty disaster plans.

”In some ways it’s a race to the bottom between terrorists who believe it would be easy, and a bureaucracy that hasn’t really addressed the problem,” said James Walsh, executive director of the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency must decide if Indian Point’s much-faulted emergency plans can be fixed. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must rule whether the plant’s license should be renewed.

Any action is months, maybe years, away.

With thousands working, living near plant, concern high in area

The mid-Hudson Valley’s stake is high. Some 28,000 Dutchess County and 12,000 Ulster County residents commute to the lower Hudson Valley and New York City each weekday for work.

All could potentially be caught up in a mad, clogged rush to evacuate if there was a disaster.

Dutchess and Ulster are within the 50-mile ”ingestion zone” around the plant. If the wind blows toward the counties, the land could be contaminated — potentially for generations.

”If we had radioactive fallout on the property, it would put the farm out of business,” said David Frost, farm manager at Cascade Farm, a 200-acre organic farm that straddles the Dutchess-Putnam border in Pawling and Patterson, about 25 miles northwest of the plant. ”The food supply is the most critical issue.”

Industry and regulatory officials say the possibility of radioactive damage so far from the plant is minimal, though opponents talk about a 17.5-mile ”peak death zone” and a 50-mile ”peak injury zone.” The figures come from an NRC study in 1982 that postulated the worst calculable results from accidents at U.S. reactors.

An Indian Point meltdown that released radioactivity directly to the atmosphere could kill more than 50,000 people and injure at least three times that many in the first year. More than 14,000 people could develop cancer in their lifetime because of such an accident, and the cost would top $300 billion, according to the analysis.

Even the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986 — by far the worst accident in the history of nuclear power, and devastating by all accounts — would pale in comparison.

That’s based on population figures two decades old.

”We believe in many cases it understates the impact,” said Kyle Rabin, a policy analyst for Riverkeeper, a Garrison-based environmental group.

Even though groups point to the report as damning evidence of a potential disaster, the report itself says the chances for a catastrophic disaster are incalculably small. ”The results presented in this report do not represent nuclear power risk,” it states.

The massive steel-reinforced concrete dome would have to be broken. All human and automated safety systems would have to fail. Residents within 10 miles would evacuate, but others would not ”shelter” themselves in buildings.

Such a doomsday scenario might happen once if a reactor ran for 100,000 years, the report concludes.

But opponents contend the chance of a release is greatly increased by the prospect of terrorism.

Indian Point’s attractiveness as a terrorist target is not hard to fathom. New York City is next door. Indeed, no other nuclear plant in the nation has as many people living nearby as Indian Point does.

This year, concern reached a fever-pitch in the lower Hudson Valley after the release of a preliminary report by the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Lee Witt. The report, ordered by Gov. George Pataki, validated opponents who long claimed the disaster plans, especially for a terrorist strike, are inadequate.

But it also criticized some opponents for sowing unnecessary fear.

Longtime opposition from environmentalists

Opposition to the plant is not new. Hudson River environmental groups have fought the plant since the first reactor was built in 1962.

That reactor, Indian Point 1, went dark in 1974, when Consolidated Edison decided not to invest in required fixes. Reactors 2 and 3 still run, producing about 1,950 megawatts of power on 240 acres about midway between Manhattan and Poughkeepsie.

Riverkeeper is leading the latest drive to close Indian Point, but Poughkeepsie groups, including Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, are also involved.

The mainstream environmental movement has opposed nuclear power since the middle of the last century, as an outgrowth of the peace movement’s opposition to nuclear weapons.

Some say the environmental movement was born with the revelation that nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere caused radioactive fallout thousands of miles from the test site, said Peter Montague, director of the New Jersey-based Environmental Research Foundation and editor of the Rachel’s Environment and Health News newsletter.

”Everybody could see that this was the same technology in a different box,” he said.

Opposition based on the chance of catastrophe at plants, and the long-term issues around storing nuclear waste, dominate the docket of grievances environmentalists have filed against nuclear power operators.

The nuclear industry and employees at Indian Point argue nuclear power is environmentally friendly because it emits virtually no air pollution.

Indeed, Indian Point is far more friendly to the air than other Hudson River power plants.

Coal-fired power plants such as Dynegy’s Danskammer and Roseton plants in Newburgh together emitted 2.1 million pounds of air pollutants in 2000, according to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Indian Point emitted virtually none.

”Indian Point is 20 miles away. We should be more concerned about Danskammer right across the river,” Beacon Mayor Clara Lou Gould said.

Although concerned, she said she’d leave it to the experts to gauge the danger and decide how best to deal with Indian Point.

For opponents, Sept. 11 brought closing Indian Point to a crisis point.

”On 9/12 we came to work and said, ‘Indian Point. We’ve got to get that thing closed,’ ” said Manna Jo Greene, environmental director for Clearwater, which has opposed Indian Point since its construction.

How vulnerable is the plant to disaster?

Like all nuclear power plants in the United States, Indian Point has multiple, redundant safety features, many of which operate independent of human control. That means the system shuts down or the reactor cores cool automatically if there is an accident.

Reactor 2 once had the worst safety rating the NRC gives, owing primarily to the rupture of a steam-generating tube in February 2000 when Consolidated Edison owned the plant.

In August 2002, the NRC upgraded Indian Point 2’s safety rating a notch, citing Entergy’s ”substantial progress” and the ”significant additional re-sources” committed to improving its operation.

For several years, the NRC has rated the Indian Point 3 reactor well. Reactor 2 still has a ”yellow” rating, because of training problems first cited when the plant was owned by Con Ed.

From several reports by Entergy and outside consultants, and from numerous interviews with long-time employees at Indian Point, the management of the power plant appears to have improved greatly since Entergy bought the plants in 2001.

”We have seen improvements in performance under Entergy. That is not to say that more work does not need to be done, but clearly they have made some strides,” said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s regional office.

Opponents contend terrorism presents a new threat.

The steel-reinforced concrete dome over the reactor was designed to

withstand earthquakes, tornadoes with winds over 260 mph and drastic changes in atmospheric pressure — but not a kamikaze hit from a commercial jetliner.

A reactor’s dome is critical. It is the barrier between the radioactive core and the atmosphere. If the core melted, and that barrier was breached, radiation will blow wherever the winds do.

A December study, paid for by the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, claimed the domes are strong enough to withstand a hit even from a fully-fueled 767.

Because these planes are wider than any one building at a nuclear plant, the impact from the plane’s body and its engines could not be concentrated on one single target. The study also illustrated the vast difference in size between a nuclear plant and the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. Suicide pilots would need incredible skill, or incredible luck, to bull’s-eye their plane on targets the size of reactors or any other building at a nuclear complex.

However, the report’s authors did not reveal any data they used to draw their conclusions, citing security concerns. It is impossible to assess their conclusions.

An NRC study on the same topic is under way but won’t be made public either. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the NRC has answered concerns about plane attacks by urging better security at airports.

A no-fly zone imposed over nuclear power plants shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks ended within days. A restricted no-boating zone remains in effect on the Hudson immediately outside Indian Point, marked off by a series of buoys.

Storage system for spent fuel has risks

The vulnerability of the storage system for spent fuel is also a concern. When fuel is used up in the reactor, it is transferred to large pools of water until it can be transported off site and stored permanently.

At present pace, reactor 2’s spent-fuel pool will be filled sometime next year, and reactor 3’s pool will be filled by the end of the decade, according to Entergy.

The industry and regulators downplay the danger at spent-fuel pools, but several studies say serious health consequences could occur if the water covering spent fuel is drained. The fuel could ignite, causing a fire that will release dangerous levels of radioactivity. Unlike the reactor core, the pools are not housed in such tight or thick containments. They are located in three buildings, but the pools themselves are located below ground level.

A 1997 study by Brookhaven National Laboratory for the NRC estimated between 1,500 and 143,000 people could die from a fire at an average spent-fuel pool, and many square miles could be contaminated. The danger from accidents at the pools drops drastically once spent fuel has cooled several years.

The rectangular spent-fuel pool buildings at Indian Point have reinforced-concrete walls and ceilings. After about five years, the heat in spent fuel drops enough so it can be stored in dry concrete casks, Entergy officials said. Presently, all spent fuel at Indian Point is stored in pools.

Questions raised about plant security

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has called Indian Point the most heavily defended plant in the country — with private security officers, state police and National Guardsmen on site, and multiple physical barriers.

But plant security had been criticized, especially since a January 2002 Entergy-commissioned consultant report became public. The report showed only 19 percent of security officers felt they could adequately repel a terrorist attack.

Entergy has spent more than $3 million to improve security since the Sept. 11 attacks, increasing the number of security officers, redeploying defensive positions and improving strategy and physical barriers.

The internal security report said workers were optimistic that Entergy’s management and investment would improve security.

”Security is much better than it’s ever been. We do have our problems, and a shortage of people, but we’re working on it,” Michael Mullen said about a month ago, shortly after Indian Point hired 23 new security guards. Mullen, a Town of Wappinger resident, has worked security at Indian Point for 25 years.

While Indian Point has passed federal guidelines on recent security drills and emergency preparedness, there is a growing consensus the federal guidelines themselves are inadequate.

Security drills test the plant’s ability to withstand a small group of attackers with light weapons. Many see that as inadequate, seeing as how 19 terrorists worked together to hijack planes on Sept. 11. In theory, terrorists could have access to rocket launchers, explosives or other powerful weaponry.

The Witt report criticized the federal security testing program, saying if present regulations don’t test preparations for a realistic attack, ”then those regulations need to be revised and updated.”

Indian Point will be among the first plants in the country tested by new federal security drills intended to be more realistic, the NRC announced recently. That drill is expected within a few months.

There remains a question about what terrorists could do if they attacked the plant. Would they have the sophistication and technical expertise to capitalize?

”Anyone can go in and trip a plant. But cause a meltdown? I cannot conceive of how a person could do that,” said Hopewell Junction resident Jim Gorman, a 23-year veteran nuclear reactor operator at Indian Point.

Plant engineers and operators trust safety systems to such a degree they say any attempt to disable them and cause a meltdown would be impossible.

The nuclear power industry is not the nation’s biggest liability in the age of terrorism, said James Walsh, executive director of the Managing the Atom Project. But he characterized the nuclear security this way:

”We’re not responding to this well,” he said. ”It’s not the science that’s the problem. It’s not the engineering that’s the problem. It’s the institutions that are the problem.”

Emergency plans called inadequate

Dealing with a catastrophe — whatever its nature — has been the most criticized aspect of planning at Indian Point. Situated in a thickly settled area, with major arteries often clogged by rush hour traffic, Indian Point could face a dangerous emergency evacuation — many say an impossible one.

”Indian Point’s evacuation plan is completely inadequate,” U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, said recently, calling for the plant to be shut down. ”It relies on outdated technology and fails to recognize the realities of modern terrorist threats. … Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to create an effective evacuation at that site.”

More than 256,000 people live within the 10-mile evacuation zone around the plant.

Since the Witt report was released, confidence in evacuation plans has evaporated. Yet, as the public controversy has grown, the number of people likely to evacuate — whether they are in danger or not — is likely to balloon.

The 1982 NRC study states ”increasing the evacuation distance to 25 miles could substantially reduce the peak consequence … but the feasibility of a timely evacuation from so large an area is highly questionable.”

The southwest portion of Dutchess would be included in a 25-mile evacuation radius.

The Witt report said planners need to account for a large ”shadow” evacuation — an exodus of people who aren’t in the 10-mile evacuation zone, and may not be in harm’s way, but who leave anyway. A shadow evacuation could clog roads, blocking the way for those who truly need to evacuate.

Local hospital officials said they have generic emergency plans, but no specific contingency plans for a disaster at Indian Point. Neither do they have specific plans with other hospitals to handle an increased load of patients — a potentially huge influx if Westchester hospitals must close, or are inundated with patients with real or imagined injuries.

”We had to think of not one, not two. We had to think of 100, maybe 200, maybe 300. Maybe 5,000. I don’t know that we can treat 5,000,” said Peggy Piering, director of emergency services at Northern Westchester Hospital Center in Mount Kisco, a 200-bed hospital just outside the 10-mile evacuation zone.

There is a generic statewide plan among hospitals to share resources in emergencies, and extensive plans to deal with a variety of emergencies in Dutchess.

”We’re so county-driven in Dutchess that we would depend on the county to tell us what to do,” said Sue Prezzano, emergency and trauma manager at St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie.

While Dutchess has given hospitals no specific guidance about Indian Point, Prezzano and other hospital officials said they are confident in the emergency planning in the county.

Decision on plant is months or years away

Since the release of the Witt report, the future of Indian Point and its emergency plans have bounced around state and federal bureaucracies. Its ultimate fate will not be decided for months, perhaps years.

FEMA has requested more information from the state and counties about emergency planning. During congressional hearings last month, U.S. Rep. Sue Kelly, R-Katonah, imposed an unofficial deadline for FEMA to act by March 27.

Even if FEMA ultimately deems the plan inadequate, the NRC will have four more months to review the issue before it could consider ordering a shut-down of the plant amid stiff political pressure — a precedent most assume the NRC is loathe to set.

Closing the plant would eventually reduce the risk from nuclear fuels on site, but not for several years. Spent fuel would likely remain on site at least until 2010, just as spent fuel at the closed Indian Point 1 reactor has remained on site for nearly 30 years.

”I can see risks coming in that, too,” said Brian Gallaway, 31, who lives in Poughkeepsie and works in Garrison, about five miles from Indian Point. ”Chances are, security is going to lessen. If you close it, I don’t think that’s necessary and sufficient to make it safe.”

Gallaway said he hopes the scrutiny on Indian Point improves security there and at the nation’s other power plants. He believes Indian Point should never have been constructed so close to New York City — but now that it is here, it should be protected and remain open.

”We have to deal with it,” he said, ”open or closed.”

This special report originally appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal

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