“For about 10 minutes yesterday morning, I wondered how much I still wanted to be a journalist.
We had just received a report in the newsroom about an explosion at the Indian Point nuclear power complex, and all I could think of doing was driving south away from the story.
Here is part of a frightening text message that came across one beeper: “Buchanan explosion. Indian Point nuclear power plant.”
Was this a nuclear accident, the one you fear with a power plant only 25 miles away? Had it finally come?
This wasn’t how I felt on Sept. 11, 2001. That morning I left my apartment in New York City and got onto the Major Deegan Expressway before I realized the World Trade Center had been hit. Without any hesitation, I turned back and headed for Lower Manhattan along with the firetrucks. I knew the country could be under attack, but I wasn’t afraid. If I thought about it at all, I was sure I would be able to flee whatever came at me.
Not yesterday. Had radiation already been released? Which way was the wind blowing? Would it be better to stay in the building or run now?
Near me, some of my colleagues were rummaging for potassium iodide pills, the so-called KI pills that would protect their thyroids from radioactive iodine. My drawer was empty of pills. I had brought mine home and so they were in my bathroom cabinet and of no use to me.
Others with more forethought had theirs at hand. One woman wasn’t giving any up, not even to a reporter going to the scene. She wasn’t sure how many pills she would need, plus she momentarily thought of volunteering to cover for the story herself. She was braver than I.
Over the years, The Journal News has written extensively about evacuation routes should there be a serious accident at the plants. In that moment, I realized I had read none of them. I had no idea which way I was supposed to go. Almost six years after the hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center I still had not made plans for an emergency despite all the exhortations to be prepared. Then again, if you listen to the evacuation critics, it probably didn’t matter. They predict traffic jams on Route 9 as thousands try to leave. They doubt an orderly evacuation is possible.
In the end, of course, the explosion was a fire in a transformer yard outside the nuclear area of Indian Point 3. The fire forced the plant to shut down automatically but no radiation was released, officials said. The transformer yard is across a street from the plant.
The Indian Point plants, which are owned by Entergy Nuclear Northeast, had already had a bad week. On Monday, 123 of 150 new emergency sirens failed to operate; on Tuesday, a water pump malfunction closed Indian Point 3 for nearly a day. It had already been closed for 24 days for scheduled refueling and maintenance.
Yesterday’s shutdown will degrade the plants’ safety rating to white from green, the safest of four operational categories, said Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
By the afternoon, legislators across the Lower Hudson Valley were calling for an independent study of the plants’ safety before they are relicensed for another 20 years.
“As always, we are told by Entergy and the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) that there is no danger to the public health,” U.S. Rep. John Hall, the Democrat who represents northern Westchester, Putnam and parts of Rockland counties, said in a statement. “Their credibility is, to put it kindly, insufficient to reassure us when 8 percent of the population of the entire United States lives with the 50-mile radius of this plant.”
He was joined by others from Congress, and yesterday, I couldn’t help but agree.
Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano also is urging an independent study – and, as he has said before, he wants the plant shut down.
“This is just one more reason why,” said his spokeswoman, Susan Tolchin.
“We’re happy that there was no threat and we’re happy that there was nobody hurt, but why did it happen? They need to find out the cause of that. But the fact remains that it’s an aging plant and it shouldn’t be here.”
Within minutes of learning it had been a fire at Indian Point, the newsroom returned to normal. Reporters turned back to their computers. On to other disasters. A group of tourists from Dobbs Ferry had been on the cruise ship that sank in the Aegean Sea. They really had been in danger. But still … maybe I should pay more attention to those nuclear power plants on the Hudson River.”
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