“THE Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan is just 35 miles from Times Square. More than 20 million people live within 50 miles of Indian Point, which means that it is surrounded by a more densely populated area than any other nuclear plant in the country.You can rent a helicopter and fly over Indian Point for a close examination. No one will stop you, even though Al Qaeda members flew over Indian Point on Sept. 11, 2001, and even though the group was recently reported to have considered using hijacked tourist helicopters in New York City as weapons.

How is this possible? There is a no-flight zone over Disneyland and Disney World, and one is routinely enforced during the Super Bowl and other major sporting events. Yet Indian Point today doesn’t have this protection.

As frightening as that is, it’s only one of the many safety problems, which suggest that Indian Point is an anachronism in an age of terrorism, and that we are not doing enough to defend against disaster. For example, not only is Indian Point unsafe from the air, but it is also vulnerable by land and water: the Hudson River and local highways offer easy access to poorly defended grounds surrounding the plant. Many of the guards at Indian Point have expressed concerns about their ability to defend against a well-coordinated attack. Several years ago, according to guards working at the plant, about 20 percent of the security force was so unfit that they could not get up from lying down without assistance. Shortly after 9/11, an internal survey revealed that only 19 percent of the guards believed that they could adequately defend the plant.

Inevitably, the prospect of a radiation release at Indian Point raises the specter of Chernobyl. In 1986, a sizeable area around Chernobyl in Ukraine was rendered permanently uninhabitable, history’s worst environmental disaster ever. The health consequences of that catastrophe have been unfathomably cruel; even now, almost 20 years later, children are born with debilitating defects that will last a lifetime.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry contend that a release of radiation on the scale of Chernobyl could never happen in this country because of inherent differences in power plant design and existing safety systems. Sure, we probably won’t have a Chernobyl, but we could have something with devastating consequences. Indian Point was not designed with the terrorist threat in mind, and the possibility of a release of radiation has been significantly amplified by terrorism.

Although containment domes around nuclear generators may be the most obvious terrorist targets at the plant, critics maintain that the storage pools for highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel are even more vulnerable and could release lethal amounts of radioactivity. According to a 1982 Congressional report — the most recent conducted — a major release at Indian Point could kill tens of thousands of residents and cause billions of dollars in damage.

In 2002, Gov. George Pataki commissioned a former Federal Emergency Management Association director, James Lee Witt, to evaluate Indian Point’s emergency evacuation plans independently. Mr. Witt concluded that the evacuation plans were seriously flawed, and that they failed to consider the possibility of a fast-breaking release of radiation brought on by a terrorist attack. In response to the Witt report, three of the four counties that surround the plant — Westchester, Rockland and Orange — did not fully support the plans as adequate to protect public health and safety. Even so, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Association went ahead and signed off on them. Today, emergency workers continue to have serious reservations about their effectiveness. One local police chief I spoke with predicted mass confusion in an evacuation.

Not enough people from both political parties — and not even Entergy, the plant owner — are talking about this. And yet, it seems both self-evident and essential that we engage in a public dialogue about the future of the plant and its security. It is a matter of enormous concern for all New Yorkers, as well as the rest of the nation.

We need to ask ourselves: What is the rationale for keeping the plant open? Critics maintain we don’t need the 2,000 megawatts of power generated by Indian Point. We can replace the power with efficient gas-fired plants and alternative sources of energy like solar and wind with minimal impact on reliability and prices.

Just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I walked along the West Side Highway a few blocks from where I lived, trying to make sense of all that had happened. Of course, there were no easy answers that day. In particular, though, I remember overhearing one exhausted rescue worker say to a friend, “I hope next time — if there ever is a next time — that we’re prepared.” At Indian Point, three years after 9/11, I do not believe that we are.

Westchester Rory Kennedy is the director of the HBO documentary “Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable.””

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