If anything positive arose from the stunningly inept government response to the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it has come in the form of a wake-up call for communities to adopt a “better safe than sorry” attitude, and be prepared to take matters into their own hands should disaster strike.
But here in the Hudson Valley, home of the Indian Point nuclear power plant (IP), the public has heard that wake-up call before. With three original reactors, IP’s 43-year history is replete with safety violations, leaks, technical glitches, even several shutdowns-including permanent closure of IP1. For all its problems, the plant, owned by the Entergy Corporation, supplies only 2,000 megawatts of power per day-or approximately 8 percent of total power to New York City and Westchester.
On September 28, simultaneous press conferences calling for the immediate closing of Indian Point were held by elected officials in Ulster, Rockland, Orange, Dutchess, and Westchester Counties. The officials included Nyack’s mayor John Shields, and county legislators Susan Zimet and Hector Rodriguez (Ulster) and Joel Tyner (Dutchess). The press conferences were held at the major roadways that would serve as IP evacuation routes for the 20 million people living within the plant’s 50-mile radius.
The press conferences were designed to notify the public that an increasing number of elected officials consider Indian Point to be a disaster waiting to happen-a “potential Chernobyl on the Hudson,” said Tyner-and if and when the worst happens, for people living in New York City as well as the Hudson Valley, there may be “nowhere to run,” as claimed by the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition (IPSEC), a coalition formed following 9/11 of over 70 environmental, health, and public policy organizations concerned about the vulnerability of the plant to both accidents and acts of terrorism.
Situated on the east bank of the Hudson River just 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan, IP’s placement has been controversial since the first of the plant’s three reactors began operating in 1962, when a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) official described the location as “insane” given its proximity to such a densely populated area.
Mark Jacobs, co-director of the Longview School in Cortlandt Manor, co-founder of IPSEC and a homeowner living four miles from IP, remarked, “If we have three days to evacuate the area before any radiation is released, we’re fine-I mean, we’re fine in that we get away, and then we have to pay mortgages on houses that are uninhabitable, but we live through it. If we don’t have three days, if it’s a release that takes less time, then we have less time, we hit traffic bottlenecks, chances are we don’t make it.”
From all accounts, the evacuation plan is as devoid of sense as the plant’s location. The plan, written immediately after the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island, does not include New York City or the Hudson Valley. It covers only a 10-mile radius around the plant, and if nuclear industry lobbyists have their way with the NRC, it may be limited further, to a 2.5-mile radius. However, says Jacobs, “Radiation doesn’t stop at any barriers. We know from Chernobyl that a 50-mile radius is rendered uninhabitable. An incident at Indian Point could cause significant casualties, including the city, of over 20 million, which is 8 percent of the population of the entire US. Can you imagine-New York City and the Hudson Valley uninhabitable?”
On January 10, 2003, James Lee Witt Associates, Inc., a research firm founded by the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director, issued a comprehensive draft assessment of emergency preparedness for the area surrounding IP and portions of New York City (available at http://www.closeindianpoint.org). The report called the plan “unworkable,” and found that the current evacuation “system and capabilities are not adequate to…protect the people from an unacceptable dose of radiation in the event of a release from Indian Point, especially if the release is faster or larger than the design basis release.”
Based on Witt’s report, Westchester, Rockland, Orange, and Ulster Counties have refused to certify the plan.
At present, 52 municipalities and 13 community boards have passed a “Close Indian Point” resolution, and more than 400 elected and public officials from the tri-state area, including 11 members of Congress, have called for the plant’s closure. New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, who is running for governor in 2006, has spoken out against keeping IP running, and has been holding meetings to explore alternative renewable energy resources in New York State, says Lisa Rainwater van Suntum, Riverkeeper’s Indian Point campaign director. In 2003, Westchester County legislator Michael Kaplowitz testified before Congress that: “The reasons to be concerned about IP are many, but can be summarized as follows: potential operational
difficulties endemic in aging plants, a potential terrorist attack in this new, difficult age, and questionable security. When combined with the potential for disastrous consequences to people and property should something untoward happen and the inability to adequately and timely evacuate area residents within the penumbra of Indian Point, we, and you, have compelling reasons to be concerned.”
This year, several incidents at and involving IP have provoked concern. Last February, a control rod at IP2 (the first plant in the nation to receive a “red rating” from the NRC in 2000, necessitating a yearlong shutdown) malfunctioned twice in less than 24 hours. In June, as the Federal Department of Transportation announced the end of a special exemption that allowed secret shipments of radioactive depleted uranium (DU) munitions by the Department of Defense, a DU shipment from IP began leaking somewhere between New York State and its storage unit destination in South Carolina, where workmen unloading the truck were exposed.
On September 20, a leak of cobalt and cesium occurred in IP2’s spent-fuel pool. Although the leak initially went unannounced by Entergy for three weeks, it was eventually reported on the company’s website as posing “no threat” to the populace; however, says Riverkeeper’s Suntum, the website’s wording has since been changed to “no immediate threat.” According to Suntum, as of press time in mid-October, the leak was continuing at the rate of one liter of radioactive material per day. In late September, the plant’s 156 sirens failed the mandatory emergency test for the third month in a row. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has demanded that the NRC require Entergy to provide backup power for the sirens within 18 months. On October 5, tritium (a radioactive isotope of the element hydrogen) was discovered in the plant’s sampling well. At press time, it had not yet been determined whether this finding was related to the leak.
In the wake of 9/11, nuclear power plants in general and IP in particular became flashpoints for debate. It is known that IP was flown over and used by the terrorists on 9/11 as a navigational marker. Later, maps and floor plans for several American nuclear power plants were found in Afghan caves vacated by Al Qaeda members. Whether terrorists would ever actually attack IP is anyone’s guess. However, Imagining the Unimaginable, an HBO/Cinemax documentary, shows that small aircraft hovering over the plant go unnoticed and undeterred. IP’s security chief testified on film to inept staff training-despite being scripted toward security team victory, the guards playing the roles of terrorists still managed to win entry to the plant-and was promptly fired.
IP’s licenses for plants 2 and 3 expire in 2013 and 2015, respectively, and Entergy is applying for 20-year extensions. Westchester, Rockland, Ulster, and New Jersey’s Hudson County, along with several municipalities, have passed resolutions against IP’s license renewal. Legislators from these and other Hudson Valley counties plan to hold regular press conferences to update the public on the fight against relicensing as well as IP’s problems. For more information, contact Susan Zimet at firstname.lastname@example.org or (845) 255-2117. To find out how to help, visit http://www.riverkeeper.org for a list of “What You Can Do” and “Eighteen Reasons Why Indian Point Should be Safely Decommissioned.”