How worried should we be about the nuclear plant up the river?

“Emergency Planning for Indian Point: A Guide for You and Your Family” is a booklet published as a public service by the plant’s owner, Entergy Nuclear Northeast. Part “Hints from Heloise,” part “Dr. Strangelove,” the booklet has a cheerful blue cover decorated with drawings of a siren and a reactor dome. Inside, it is filled with tips like “Six Facts You Need to Know About KI—Potassium Iodide” (No. 1: it can protect your thyroid if you are exposed to radioactive iodine) and “helpful answers” to questions like “Could Indian Point explode like a bomb?” (“No. It is impossible for any nuclear power plant to explode like a bomb under any conditions.”) At the back, there is an “Emergency Planning Checklist,” which recommends, “If you are told to evacuate, you should bring enough personal supplies for three days,” including a portable radio, potassium-iodide tablets, and “this planning booklet.”

In total, Entergy printed more than two hundred thousand copies of the guide, which were mailed to households within ten miles of the plant, in northern Westchester County. Nowhere does the booklet explicitly mention sabotage, but this fear was clearly on the minds of the authors:

Q: How can I be sure that Indian Point is secure and well-protected?
A: Indian Point is defended by armed guards, sophisticated detection equipment and other advanced protection systems that meet or exceed federal, state and local requirements.

An attack on a nuclear power plant would seem to fulfill, almost perfectly, Al Qaeda’s objective of using America’s technology against it. In his State of the Union Message last year, President Bush announced that United States forces searching Afghan caves had indeed found diagrams of American reactors. Around the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acting on information provided by the F.B.I., warned of a plot to crash a commercial aircraft into a plant. According to the N.R.C., the identity of the plant was not known; a captured Al Qaeda operative had told the F.B.I. that the specific target was to be chosen by a “team on the ground.”

As potential targets go, Indian Point seems almost too obvious. It is situated on the Hudson River, in Buchanan, New York, some twenty miles north of the Bronx and thirty-five miles from midtown Manhattan. Nearly three hundred thousand people live within the plant’s ten-mile “emergency planning zone,” and another several hundred thousand reside within seventeen and a half miles, in the so-called “peak fatality” zone. More than twenty million people live within fifty miles of the plant. A 1982 analysis by a congressional subcommittee estimated that, under worst-case conditions, a catastrophe at one of the Indian Point reactors could result in fifty thousand fatalities and more than a hundred thousand radiation injuries. The same study calculated the cost of such an accident at roughly three hundred billion dollars. By an uncomfortable coincidence, American Airlines Flight 11, just minutes before it slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, flew almost directly over Indian Point’s twin reactor domes. Apparently, the Hudson River was the landmark that the hijackers used to navigate by.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant, or energy center, as it is now called, is named after the spit of land, once home to an amusement park, on which it’s built. There are two functioning reactors on the site, Indian Point 2 and 3, and a third, Indian Point 1, which has been closed for nearly thirty years. Recently, I went to Buchanan to take a look around. I had been told to report to the plant’s emergency-operations facility, and when I drove up to it an armored tank was rumbling across the parking lot. Inside the facility, I was issued the first of several security badges and was introduced to Entergy Nuclear Northeast’s director of emergency programs, Michael Slobodien.

Before I arrived, Slobodien had laid out a tableful of charts and diagrams, one of which was titled “Chernobyl-Indian Point Contrast.” On the left side, it noted that “Chernobyl used flammable graphite for neutron control” and “did not have a comprehensive emergency plan.” On the right, it said, “IP uses non-flammable water for neutron control” and has “modern emergency plans.” There were also several large black-and-white photographs chronicling the construction of the reactors’ four-and-a-half-foot-thick containment domes.

“This building was designed with the intent to withstand the tremendous energy of a massive release from an accident of some unknown origin,” Slobodien told me, picking up one of the photographs. “We really don’t care what the origin is. We just said, ‘Let’s assume that that happens.’ Because that’s kind of the worst-case situation you could envision. And, by the way, in our business everything is worst case. We always think about what is the worst that can happen, and we design to accomplish protection for the worst case.” Slobodien told me that he had been one of the “responders” sent by the N.R.C. to Three Mile Island, outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after the meltdown there, in 1979, and later had overseen the cleanup of the site. He explained, without a trace of irony, that, while one of the lessons of the disaster had been that “serious accidents can occur,” another was that “the reactor design was successful.”

Like Three Mile Island, Indian Point 2 and 3 are pressurized-water reactors. Each reactor contains a hundred and ninety-three fuel assemblies, and each assembly holds a hundred fuel rods—skinny zirconium tubes filled with pellets of enriched uranium. To produce power, the fuel rods must first be bombarded with neutrons. This sets off a chain reaction, which produces more neutrons, “fission products” like radioactive iodine, and a great deal of energy. The energy is used to heat pressurized water to 550 degrees Fahrenheit, and this pressurized water is then used to heat more water to make steam. The steam, in turn, powers a set of turbines, which, finally, generate electricity. (Together, the two reactors at Indian Point produce, on average, two thousand megawatts, or enough electricity to supply two million homes.) The chain reaction is carefully monitored and controlled; however, if, for whatever reason, heat is not carried away from the core, the fuel can melt and, in the presence of oxygen, catch fire. Depending on conditions, this can take hours or merely minutes.

Slobodien took me down to the emergency center’s control room, a large windowless office filled with computers that, ideally, should never have to be used. (In a truly catastrophic accident, the emergency-operations facility might itself have to be evacuated, which is why there is a second command center, similar to the first, twenty miles away, in White Plains.) On the walls of the room were charts listing possible disasters, like “tornado strikes a plant vital area.” The charts were color-coded by type of hazard, and each calamity was further specified by a numerical designation. On a table was a detailed map of the area around the plant.

Slobodien pulled out a set of transparencies illustrating how a plume of airborne radioactive contamination would travel under various conditions. He selected one that posited a wind coming from the north with a relatively high degree of turbulence. It showed the plume travelling south in a widening band. “The areas that are most affected would be the communities of Buchanan and Verplanck”—small towns right next to the plant—”and pretty much the river,” he observed, laying the transparency over the map. Slobodien said that he was distressed by diagrams put out by the plant’s critics which suggest that in the event of an accident radioactivity would drift in all directions.

“It doesn’t really happen that way,” he explained. “The concept that everything is affected all at once is clearly not true.” The control-center map showed only the area within a few miles of Indian Point, so I couldn’t tell what would happen to the plume once it travelled beyond that radius. I did notice, though, that as it was widening it was headed toward New York City.

Eventually, I tried to steer the conversation around to September 11th. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy and the F.B.I. warning, public concern has tended to focus on the possibility of another aerial attack. Whether the containment domes at most plants could withstand the impact of a fully loaded 767 is a much debated question; the N.R.C. is, somewhat belatedly, looking into this matter. There are, however, also many other possible scenarios. To cool its reactors, for example, Indian Point relies on the circulation of more than a billion gallons of water a day from the Hudson. Several groups, including the Green Party of New York and the environmental organization Riverkeeper, have tried to demonstrate the plant’s vulnerability by boating—or, in one case, canoeing—near the cooling-water intake pipes. One of the groups claims to have made it within fifty feet of the pipes. I asked Slobodien what would happen in the event that the pipes were blocked, or destroyed.

“A lot of these things we don’t talk about in great detail, for obvious reasons,” he told me. “So, when it comes to the intake, all I will tell you is that you can block the intake and you still can successfully cool the reactor. Now, would it be of concern to us? Yeah, it would be of great concern to us. We would have to shut the reactor down, and we would have to do alternative cooling techniques, which we have available to us. Yeah, it would be of great concern. We don’t minimize it. But it’s not the kind of thing that leads axiomatically to, you know, the end, as some people would have you believe.”

In a practical sense, insuring that Indian Point operates safely is the job of its owner, Entergy, but in a broader sense this responsibility belongs to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The N.R.C. describes its primary mission as “to protect the public health and safety,” and to this end it not only licenses and inspects nuclear plants but continually analyzes the risks posed by them. If it deems a particular risk to be too high, it has the power to shut down a reactor—or, if need be, many reactors—until the problem is addressed; in 1975, for example, the commission temporarily closed all of the nation’s two dozen boiling-water reactors—their design is slightly different from that of pressurized-water reactors—after finding a hairline crack at one of them. The N.R.C., however, has never defined what constitutes an unacceptable risk, and critics charge that its judgment on the matter has grown susceptible to outside influences. Just a few months ago, the N.R.C.’s inspector general issued a report chastising the commission for giving too much weight to the financial concerns of a nuclear operator. The report found that, despite compelling safety concerns, the N.R.C. had allowed the owner of the Davis-Besse plant, outside Toledo, Ohio, to delay an inspection for more than six weeks. When the commission finally performed the inspection, it discovered that acidic water had been eating through the reactor’s lid—a process that, had it been allowed to continue, could well have produced a disaster.

“You have a very dangerous situation where the industry is calling the shots,” Paul Leventhal, the president emeritus of the Nuclear Control Institute, a non-proliferation advocacy group, told me.

The N.R.C. began treating sabotage as a more urgent threat after the terrorist attacks of the nineteen-eighties, which included the bombing of the American Marine barracks in Beirut. In 1991, it introduced a program of drills, known as Operational Safeguards Response Evaluations, or osres, specifically to test plant defenses. In these drills, off-duty security guards were hired to carry out a mock attack devised by N.R.C. specialists. For obvious reasons, plant operators were alerted to the osres in advance; meanwhile, N.R.C. guidelines limited the attackers to three outside assailants and one insider, whose role was restricted to providing information. Between 1991 and 2000, the N.R.C. conducted the drills at the rate of roughly eight plants a year. Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3 both passed in 1994. At nearly half of the plants tested, though, guards failed to repel the assailants before they had destroyed at least one so-called “target set.” In other words, had the attack been real, the terrorists would have been in a position to cause potentially catastrophic damage.

Many plant operators were disturbed by this result, but not, it seems, for the reason one might have thought. They pressed the N.R.C. to replace the drills with more frequent security exercises of the operators’ own devising. In a scathing assessment of this idea, David Orrik, a retired Navy captain who oversaw the osres and is still a senior official at the N.R.C., wrote that nuclear operators had demonstrated an “abject failure . . . to be capable—by themselves—of protecting against radiological sabotage. It took the threat of an osre to make them prepare to be ‘ready,’ and 47% still were not ‘ready.’ ” In spite of this assessment, the N.R.C. was in the process of moving toward precisely the sort of program the operators were advocating when the attack on the World Trade Center occurred. At that point, the commission suspended all anti-sabotage drills, owing, as its chairman, Richard Meserve, put it, to the general “high level threat environment.”

The N.R.C. is now in the process of redesigning the osres, presumably to better reflect the sophistication of international terrorists. The commission has said that when the redesign is completed, in the next few months, it will ask several plants, each in a different region, to volunteer to try out the new drill. Officials in New York, including Senator Hillary Clinton, strongly urged that Indian Point be one of them, and recently the N.R.C. announced that it would be.

After Slobodien had shown me around the emergency-operations facility, I continued my tour of Indian Point with Jim Steets, the communications manager for Entergy Nuclear Northeast. Steets is tall and lanky, with prematurely gray hair and an easygoing affability. He has worked at Indian Point for ten years, a period during which the plant has posed more than its share of public-relations challenges.

In May, 1992, the N.R.C., after having identified a long list of safety lapses at Indian Point 3, including one that caused a six-month failure of the backup reactor-shutdown system, fined the reactor two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars and put it on a watch list for heightened scrutiny. (At the time, Indian Point 3 was owned and operated by the New York Power Authority, and Indian Point 2 was owned and operated by Consolidated Edison.) Shortly after this fine was imposed, engineers at the reactor noticed a problem with a set of valves, and rushed to replace them before an N.R.C. inspection. In their haste, the engineers put the new valves in backward, blocking the cooling systems. The power authority fired several of its top officials and voluntarily shut down Indian Point 3 in order to conduct a safety overhaul. This overhaul was supposed to be completed in six months but ended up taking two and a half years. One N.R.C. official compared the reactor to “a plane losing altitude,” while others, with a nod to “The Simpsons,” dubbed it “Homer on the Hudson.”

“Basically, it boiled down to poor management,” Steets told me. “You could write a book on it, in all honesty.”

In the late nineties, as Indian Point 3’s record finally seemed to be improving, Indian Point 2’s went into decline. In 1997, the N.R.C. found that electrical breakers at the reactor had not been properly inspected or maintained, and imposed a fifty-five-thousand-dollar fine on Con Ed. A year and a half later, the breaker problem still hadn’t been fully resolved, an oversight that, thanks to a string of related errors, one day left the control-room alarm system without power. The N.R.C. was still figuring out the proper penalty for this incident when, in February, 2000, a tube in the reactor’s steam generator ruptured, spilling twenty thousand gallons of radioactive water. The reactor received a “red finding,” the N.R.C.’s lowest safety rating, and spent most of the rest of the year out of operation.

Entergy had completed its purchase of Indian Point 2 and 3 by the summer of 2001. At that point, many people at the plant, Steets told me, were hopeful that a new era was beginning. To celebrate the event, the company put up an enormous tent by the river and threw a party. “We had a great, great day out here,” Steets said of the party, which took place just four days before September 11th. A month later, four of the seven control-room operating crews at Indian Point 2 failed an annual relicensing exam. Four months after that, also at Indian Point 2, a security guard was fired for pulling a gun on a colleague in an argument over a glass of orange juice.

Steets had promised to show me whatever there is to see at a nuclear reactor, and so we got into his car and drove down to Indian Point 3. The area right around the reactors, called the “protected area,” is much more heavily guarded than the area around the emergency-operations center, which is called the “owner-controlled area.” On the drive, we passed a tall chain-link fence rimmed with concrete barriers and topped with motion sensors. A truck was idling at the gate while a guard inspected its undercarriage with a mirror on a long pole.

Before I could enter the plant, I had to get a badge from a guard carrying a semi-automatic rifle and pass through a metal detector, an explosives detector, and, finally, a radiation detector. Next, I had to go upstairs to get a dosimeter, as well as a brief, government-mandated lecture from a radiological engineer named James Barry. On the way to Barry’s office, I passed signs printed with slogans like “star: Stop, Think, Act, Review” and “step: Safety Takes Employee Participation.” One poster said, “IP3 Practices alara,” which stands for “as low as reasonably achievable” and refers to radiation exposure. Another urged employees to “Save an mrem Today.” (One millirem is equal to a tenth of the amount of radiation a person would be exposed to in a typical chest X-ray.) Barry told me how to respond in the event of an alarm—”the one thing we don’t want you to do is run or panic”—and informed me that if I saw anything that I thought constituted a hazard to myself or anyone else I had “the right to go to the N.R.C.” Then he took Steets and me over to a bank of computers that read our dosimeters, through a set of doors of the sort typically seen in prisons, and down to a huge concrete tub filled with water. At the bottom of the pool, metal racks holding spent fuel rods were just barely visible.

For more than three decades now, the federal government has been planning to construct a repository for spent uranium, with limited success. (The repository now under construction at Yucca Mountain, in the Nevada desert, will not be open until at least 2010, if it opens at all.) In the meantime, like every other reactor in the country, Indian Point has been obliged to store its spent fuel on-site. By now, Indian Point 3 has collected six hundred and twenty-four tons of the stuff, and Indian Point 2 has amassed eight hundred and eight tons. Although the fuel is of no use in generating electricity, it is still highly radioactive and produces a great deal of heat, which is why it must always be kept submerged. Two years ago, after much prodding from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, the N.R.C. released a study looking at the risks of a spent-fuel fire. While the commission concluded that the risk of such a fire was low—the fuel would have to be left out of water for several hours—it acknowledged that the consequences “could be comparable to those for a severe reactor accident.” This finding is frequently cited by critics of Indian Point, who note that the spent fuel is housed outside the containment domes, in buildings that are comparatively vulnerable, and that it contains a host of extremely dangerous “fission products,” including radioactive iodine, radioactive cesium, and strontium. Gazing down into the pool, I couldn’t help wondering—even though I realized that this was not the issue—what would happen if someone fell into it. There was a lot of noise from water rushing around, and a sign that said, “Do Not Linger.” Before turning in our dosimeters, we all had to have full-body radiation scans, a process that involved climbing into a closetlike structure, first frontward and then backward. I set off an alarm during mine but was assured that it didn’t mean anything.

As Steets and I were leaving the plant, we passed the control room. It was filled with visitors from an international nuclear operators’ association, so Steets offered to take me to see the control-room simulator instead. The simulator is an exact replica of the control room, with glass replacing one wall to allow observation of trainees. When we arrived, a large white-haired man was leading two nervous-looking younger men through a training exercise. The older man told us that the younger men were trying to keep the reactor from overheating despite eight simultaneous malfunctions. I asked him how the exercise was going to end.

“Oh, I’ll be a nice guy and give them a pump back,” he said, adding that before that he would probably let the temperature of the reactor core get up to eleven hundred degrees. (The tubes holding the fuel start to crack at twelve hundred degrees.) For the first time during my visit, I thought Steets looked discouraged.

After the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the N.R.C. resolved that every nuclear power plant in the country had to have an evacuation plan. Indian Point’s was put together by Westchester, Rockland, Orange, and Putnam Counties, in conjunction with the New York State Emergency Management Office. It details everything from the routes that buses should follow to the intersections where police should direct evacuees. The section of the plan devoted to Westchester County alone runs to two volumes, each several hundred pages.

Last summer, in the midst of his reëlection campaign, Governor George Pataki ordered an independent evaluation of the plan. (At the time, Riverkeeper was running a series of ads showing the plant in the center of a bull’s-eye and calling on the Governor to “get the target off our backs.”) The study was conducted by James Lee Witt, a former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and ran to more than five hundred pages. When it was made public, in January, the plan documented what just about everyone who lives in the region suspected: that there are simply too many people and too few roads around the plant for the area to be evacuated effectively. In an accident, only those people living in the expected path of the plume would be ordered to leave their homes; however, as the report noted, inevitably people all over the region would try to get away—a phenomenon known as a “shadow evacuation”—which could produce chaos. The report called the plan “not adequate . . . to protect the people from an unacceptable dose of radiation.”

The release of the Witt report, as it has come to be known, triggered—or perhaps just provided the excuse for—a political shift in New York. The Westchester, Rockland, Orange, and Putnam county executives all declared that this year they would not sign off on the evacuation plan, as they are required to do annually. Subsequently, the state, which is supposed to send on its approval to the federal government, announced that it could not vouch for the plan, either. By now, dozens of elected officials in the region have come out openly against Indian Point, including Representative Sue Kelly and Representative Nita Lowey, of Westchester, and Representative Eliot Engel, of the Bronx, who have called for the plant to be shut down, at least temporarily.

What happens next is largely up to the N.R.C. Under its own rules, the commission would seem to have grounds to close Indian Point—the very groups that are supposed to carry out the evacuation plan have now deemed it inadequate—but that seems unlikely. (The last time the N.R.C. ordered a plant shut over its owner’s objections was back in 1987, when inspectors arrived at the Peach Bottom Unit 3 reactor, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and found the control-room crew fast asleep.) Indian Point supplies ten per cent of New York’s power, and while this electricity could be purchased elsewhere, it is estimated that utility bills in the state would rise by a billion dollars a year if the plant were closed. Meanwhile, whatever decision the N.R.C. reaches is bound to have ramifications far beyond New York. Because of the number of people who live around Buchanan, the risks may be quantitatively higher at Indian Point than at other reactors, but qualitatively they’re really no different. In this sense, shutting down the plant would, effectively, be acknowledging that in a post-9/11 world nuclear power just isn’t worth the gamble. Two weeks ago, in the middle of a heightened terrorism alert, Richard Meserve, the N.R.C.’s chairman, faulted the Witt report for giving “undue weight” to the risk of a terrorist attack.

Along with helping to distribute “Emergency Planning for Indian Point,” Westchester County recently held several potassium-iodide giveaways and invited members of the public to pick up free tablets for their families. Even though I live on the other side of the county from Buchanan, more than ten miles outside the evacuation zone, I kept thinking that I really ought to go to one to get some for my kids. (Children are particularly vulnerable to thyroid damage.) A few weeks ago, I decided to visit a local drugstore instead. By that point, a lot of other parents had evidently made the same decision, because the pharmacist told me that I was getting his last three packages. They came in a thin cardboard folder marked “thyroid blocking in a radiation emergency only.”

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