In President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, he warned that U.S. troops in Afghanistan had found diagrams in al-Qaida’s caves of American nuclear power plants. The recently released 9/11 Commission report revealed that Mohammed Atta, the plot’s ringleader, “considered targeting a nuclear facility he had seen during familiarization flights near New York .” The plant was almost certainly Indian Point, just 24 miles from New York City . Three years after 9/11, our city continues to be at risk from a terrorist attack there.
On April 8, 2003, Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, swore under oath during her testimony before the 9/11 Commission that the Bush administration was doing everything in its power to “harden terrorist targets” in the United States .
On Sept. 24, 2003, the General Accounting Office issued a report faulting the administration for failing to bolster nuclear plant security nationwide.
The report cited incidents at the Indian Point nuclear power plant as examples of lax security by the industry – a frightening revelation for the 20 million residents living within 50 miles of the plant. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that hundreds of thousands could die from a large-scale radioactive release at Indian Point whether by terrorist attack or accident, which could also wreak trillions of dollars in economic damage.
Yet, three years after 9/11, Indian Point still lacks robust security and defense mechanisms to thwart a terrorist attack: There is no no-fly zone. No combat patrols. No anti-aircraft defense. No containment structure over the spent fuel pools. And it has still not been proven that the containment domes over the reactors could withstand the impact of a large airplane or smaller plane loaded with explosives. In fact, in 1982 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s own Atomic Safety and Licensing Board determined that reactor owners “are not required to design against such things … as kamikaze dives by large airplanes. Reactors could not be effectively protected against such attacks without turning them into virtually impregnable fortresses at much higher cost.” In a post-9/11 world, this is a serious problem that should be addressed by President Bush, the Department of Homeland Security and the NRC.
Internal reports by Entergy, which owns and operates Indian Point, show that the plant’s private security force is poorly armed, poorly trained and badly demoralized. The GAO found that the federal government deliberately stages softball mock attacks of the facilities to bamboozle the public into believing that Indian Point’s anemic defenses are adequate. The Bush administration has resisted efforts by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to federalize plant security.
Astoundingly, current federal law and nuclear plant permits absolve plant operators from responsibility for safeguarding their facilities against terrorist attacks. The White House, no doubt as a favor to the industry from which it has accepted millions in campaign contributions, has neglected to fix this loophole or to designate a federal agency to take responsibility for protecting the public.
President Bush missed a six-month deadline requiring him to act on the findings of a recent government report commissioned under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 that concluded that “everyone at risk of significant health consequences from accumulation of radioiodine in the thyroid” should have access to potassium iodide. The report recommended that the drug be stored and distributed to those living near nuclear facilities. The federal government has taken only half-hearted measures to supply potassium iodide to those living within the 10-mile emergency planning zone of Indian Point.
President Bush’s Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has refused repeated requests by state political leaders (including Westchester County Executive Andy Spano and the New York City Council) to meet to discuss safety concerns. Ridge hasn’t even responded to their letters.
While the president continues to present himself as tough on terrorism, he has not protected us against the kind of catastrophic attack that he warned about in his State of the Union address.
John Kerry, in contrast, has vowed to bolster security at both nuclear and chemical plants. That at the minimum would make Indian Point a lot safer than it is now.