Seventeen years ago, engineers at the Chernobyl nuclear facility decided to test how smoothly a plant victimized by a grid-wide power blackout could move to backup power for its safety systems. Things slipped steadily out of control until, at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, an explosion rocked the reactor complex. A second blast followed immediately, ripping it apart and throwing a 1000-ton cement containment lid high into the air.

Before dawn, the reactor’s large amount of graphite erupted in flames. The fire would burn out of control for nine days, billowing out radioactive clouds across the Ukraine, neighboring Belarus and Western Europe. More than 800,000 soldiers, firefighters, engineers, helicopter pilots and volunteers would be called upon to put it out.

Thirty-five miles from Times Square sits a nuclear power plant, one that’s accumulated a serious store of spent fuel. Given a catastrophe, Indian Point’s spent fuel could release 20 times more cesium-137, the worst radioactive isotope, than roared out of Chernobyl. In that unlikely event, we would see mass panic, a wave of cancers and death, the irreversible collapse of the Manhattan real estate market and economic disaster.

Osama bin Laden knows this. President Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, announced that U.S. forces had found diagrams of American nuclear power plants in al Qaeda lairs in Afghanistan. Surely those New York–obsessed lunatics—who have been kicking the tires of our crop dusters and casing the Brooklyn Bridge—have Indian Point on their short list of things to do.

Then again, there are 104 nuclear power reactors in the United States, generating about one-fifth of our electricity—and most of them are near cities. Chicago is ringed with nuke plants. The Limerick plant is only 21 miles from Philadelphia. The San Onofre plant is sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Diego. The Calvert Cliffs plant, overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, is about 45 miles from Washington, DC—al Qaeda’s other favorite target.

None of these plants can boast of quite so many millions of people living in a 50-mile radius as Indian Point, but there are millions nonetheless. And many other plants are more vulnerable than Indian Point. In fact, despite the well-documented weaknesses of its security forces, Indian Point’s claim that it is the best-defended nuclear facility in America may well be true.

Consider the Achilles heel of any nuclear plant: A cooling pond, usually a stainless-steel-lined, thick-walled concrete pool about 40 feet deep, crammed to the gills with highly radioactive spent fuel. Drain off the cooling water, and the spent fuel may well spontaneously ignite. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission—a timid government agency routinely bullied by industry—concluded in 2000 that the resulting fire could rage for days before it could be extinguished—just like the Chernobyl blaze.

Much would depend on where the wind carried the radioactive plume; but the NRC study concluded a fuel-pool fire could force the evacuation of millions, from areas up to 500 miles away, for periods ranging from one month to one year. Such a fire could also bring radiation-driven cancers to thousands of people living hundreds of miles away. Regions closer would be written off for many human lifespans. Think of them as national sacrifice areas, much as the 18-mile-radius exclusionary zone around the Chernobyl plant is a no-man’s land surrounded by chain-link fences and guards.

Such a scenario would be, as former Mayor Giuliani put it, more than we could bear. And Indian Point’s spent-fuel pool, which is sunk mostly but not entirely into the ground on-site, is arguably vulnerable.

However, it’s far less vulnerable than the pools of at least 18 other nuclear power plants in America—which, incredibly, are located on the upper stories of poorly reinforced buildings. In the back-and-forth over Indian Point’s future, argument rages over whether a kamikaze 767 airplane could compromise the fuel pool. At other plants, knowledgeable terrorists could wreak havoc with “a Cessna,” according to David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Organizers of the campaign against Indian Point have a narrow focus. They aren’t taking responsibility for all the nuclear plants. Indian Point, they say, is a special case: It’s closer to more people—and more financial capital—than any other reactor; the local geography creates choke points that would hinder emergency evacuations; the Hudson River Valley creates a natural funnel that would channel any radioactive plume like a curved dagger straight into the city; and so on.

The argument, it seems, is that New York City is too special to be so close to a nuclear reactor. Perhaps it is. Certainly if the citizens living with the plant decide they want to shutter it, that’s their prerogative. But if that happens, how long before, say, Californians take another look at the San Onofre plant—and start to ask how it could possibly be that Los Angelenos are less special than New Yorkers? Would a thumbs-down on Indian Point be, in effect, America’s renouncement of nuclear power itself?

This spring, those for and against closing Indian Point went head-to-head at a two-hour public forum at Manhattanville College. As discussions about nuclear power go, this one was typically muddleheaded and torturous.

Early in the forum, the moderator addressed panelist Letty G. Lutzker, a doctor and the chief of nuclear medicine at New Jersey’s Saint Barnabas Medical Center. Noting that she was also a small-plane pilot, he asked her if terrorists could fly a hijacked passenger jet into Indian Point.

“Probably not,” she replied.

As Lutzker elaborated on why terrorists couldn’t hit Indian Point with a 767, it became clear she was really arguing that it wouldn’t matter if they did. She argued that striking something low to the ground like a nuclear plant is harder to do than, say, hitting a World Trade Center tower—the pilot would need to dramatically reduce speeds to stay accurately on target. A slower-moving plane, she seemed to suggest, is a less-destructive missile. Fair enough. But American Airlines Flight 77 seemed to have little problem ripping through the low-to-the-ground Pentagon.

To argue against a 767’s efficiency as a weapon against Indian Point, Lutzker talked about wingspan and the distance between its engines. “There have been some very sophisticated studies costing millions of dollars that have looked at the physical forces involved,” she said, “and found that a 767 going full speed ahead into the reactor building—if it hit it!—might cause some chippings, fallings of the cement, but would not crack the dome.”

For a rebuttal, the moderator turned to Ed Lyman, then-president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a private group that casts a critical eye on nuclear power. Lyman countered that a 767 crashing into a nuclear power plant could be a spectacular catastrophe, regardless of whether it cracked the containment dome.

He also could have taken a slap at those “sophisticated studies costing millions of dollars.” Most of them emerged in a post-9/11 world under the careful eye—and often with the funding—of the nuclear power industry. The pre-9/11 literature was strangely silent on what happens if a jumbo jet plows into a nuclear plant, so much so that in the days immediately after the attacks, experts named the same lone study.

Conducted by General Electric, a leading builder of nuclear plants, and published in 1974 in the industry journal Nuclear Safety, it looked at accidents, not terror attacks. It concluded that were a “heavy” airliner to hit a reactor building in the right place, it would almost certainly rip it apart. It would also most likely damage the reactor core and both the cooling and emergency cooling systems.

The G.E. study defined a “heavy” plane as one weighing more than six tons. The 757 deployed against the Pentagon weighed over 100 tons. A 767, fully loaded, could weigh more than 200 tons.

Turning back to Dr. Lutzker, the moderator mentioned President Bush’s warning that al Qaeda operatives have been studying blueprints of U.S. nuclear plants. He asked: “Is that not reason enough to take this seriously as at least a possibility?”

“As a possibility, not as a probability,” the doctor replied. “The terrorists I am sure have plans of lots of installations in this country that don’t get as much play in the press as nuclear plants. I mean if you want to do some damage with an airplane, fly it into Yankee Stadium where you could kill a lot of people, start a fire that would injure a lot more people and you would absolutely take somebody with you.

“To fly into Indian Point we would end up with no release [of radiation], a dead terrorist in an airplane, and maybe some damage to a building.”

Dr. Lutzker’s unshakable faith was echoed at the same forum by Michael J. Slobodien, the director of emergency programs at Entergy Nuclear Northeast, the owner and operator of Indian Point. That hypothetical 767 would “collapse like a tin can” against the reactor dome. No release of radiation could result. This is one of those truths that seem to exist simply because they have been repeated often and so firmly.

And the religion goes all the way to the top. Consider Richard Meserve, who this time last year was testifying before Congress as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Meserve had just sat through the testimony of an interesting watchdog group called POGO, the Project on Government Oversight.

POGO is not an antinuclear organization. Rather, it works with whistleblowers to push for various public policy improvements. As Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director, testified at last June’s Senate hearing, POGO was drawn into the debate over nuclear security only after it was contacted by frustrated and frightened security guards from commercial nuclear plants across the country.

According to Brian, guards complained about poor equipment, poor training and being overworked while underpaid. Many had real concerns that they could never defend the plant against anything like a 9/11-scale assault—19 terrorists operating in four separate teams.

“In the face of a real terrorist attack,” Brian testified, “many guards [say they] would use their guns simply to protect themselves while they escaped from the plant.”

This was news to many of the senators: In the weeks before the hearing, the nuclear industry had taken out full-page ads in the Washington Post and other publications popular on Capitol Hill, featuring photos of tough-looking security forces in flak jackets with automatic weapons, and bragging of their tactical training.

Meserve waved away the guards’ concerns as “a non-existent problem,” urging senators to think about all the Yankee Stadiums out there. Specifically, he mentioned chemical plants, refineries and dams.

“We have limited assets to be able to spend on security,” he pointed out.

The evasion was shocking. Meserve’s fiefdom is singled out in the State of the Union address as targeted by formidable terrorists. He’s at a congressional hearing where others are testifying that his agency is not ready for this challenge. And his offhand reply is, Yeah, but what about the dams?

Senators stared back, bug-eyed. At one point, California’s Barbara Boxer asked Meserve plaintively: “Why don’t you want to be a model of safety?”

Security guard Foster Zeh wanted to be a model for safety. Even some Entergy executives concede as much about their former employee, who has become their greatest tormentor.

Zeh was a security guard at Indian Point for five and a half years, and in 2000 was named Supervisor of the Millennium by Wackenhut Nuclear Security. (Entergy has since let Wackenhut go and instead built its own team.) Zeh rose to train the other guards, to supervise his own guard team and even to lead an NRC-supervised mock terrorist assault on the plant last year.

“There’s a tremendous group of guys there, and women, that really believe in their minds that they want to do the right thing,” Zeh says of Indian Point security. But he also says guards are exhausted from working six days a week, they’re in poor physical shape and they’ve become cynical about having the right tools and training to hold off a band of terrorist-saboteurs.

A running joke, Zeh says, revolves around who runs when the terrorists come.

Last September, Zeh decided to do something about it. His boss had tapped him to lead an NRC exercise: Zeh was to be a one-man terrorist assault team. But, Zeh says, his supervisor also told him to “have a bad day,” so the plant could pass. Indignant, Zeh set out to give Indian Point a wake-up call.

The war-game part of the drill was played with magnetic pieces moving across a wall-mounted map of the plant. In Zeh’s account, he moved his attacking-terrorist magnet rapidly into position to go after the weakest link: the spent-fuel pool. While an NRC inspector with a clipboard tracked his rapid progress, his boss visibly fretted before finally calling an unusual time-out. He dragged Zeh out into the hall and told him to “shut the fuck up.” Zeh was replaced at the table.

The terrorists lost the game, and Indian Point passed its NRC exam. Several weeks later, Zeh was put on administrative leave.

Zeh’s detailed account appeared in the May 2003 issue of Playboy. When asked about it, Larry Gottlieb, an Entergy spokesman, was dismissive: “That article belonged in Playboy. That’s exactly where it belongs. Everything Foster [Zeh] has alleged has gone through the NRC, and it was not found to be accurate.”

Do they believe Zeh concocted the story?

“No,” Gottlieb said. Choosing his words with care, he said that managers can sometimes intercede in such an exercise “if they feel the parameters are out of whack, something doesn’t make sense. You can’t get [your terrorist magnet] from here to there in a second. It is possible that somebody said, ‘Technically that can’t happen, it’s too artificial a scenario, we have to change the scenario.’”

And what of Zeh’s contention that the fuel pools are poorly guarded, and in particular largely above ground? Entergy often speaks of Indian Point’s fuels as “embedded in bedrock,” but Zeh asserts that on three of the four sides of a 40-foot-deep pool, the last 30 feet of the walls are aboveground. It’s not a minor point: A pool sunk entirely in bedrock would pose a real challenge to terrorists; what Zeh describes sounds more like an invitation.

“[The fuel pools] are built into the side of the Hudson River bedrock,” Gottlieb says. “So the spent fuel pools are pretty much built into the bedrock. I tell folks, ‘I can’t show you the blueprints, but it’s mostly underground.’”

As in partly not underground? For clarification, I draw a picture of a fuel pool with walls aboveground; Gottlieb corrects and draws his own, which looks pretty much the same. It seems clear that if a band of terrorists were to storm Indian Point—either by stealth or force—and reach the fuel pool with high explosives, we’d be Chernobyl-bound.

Matt Bivens writes the “The Daily Outrage” column at

This article originally appeared on the cover of New York Press