“I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something. But haven’t the Indian Point nuclear power plants mysteriously faded from the public debate about potential targets for terrorists?

Think back to, well, not that long ago.

It seems like only yesterday that the county was handing out potassium iodide pills as an antidote to cancer-causing radiation. A voluminous evacuation plan was ridiculed and rejected as a ludicrous, unworkable document of bureaucratic folly. Scores of politicians were signing petitions and issuing sound bites on shutting the joint down as if it were Frankenstein’s castle-on-the-Hudson, and there was talk — serious talk — about government takeover of the Buchanan facility and converting the big microwave works into a plant fueled by natural gas.

While Indian Point may remain vulnerable to some kind of suicide attack, particularly from the air, that reality has been superseded, or at least obscured, by the happy fact that no instances of domestic terrorism have occurred since Sept. 11, 2001.

And after all, there are other things to ponder these days besides the possibility of hijacked jets slamming into a nuclear containment dome. Things like the Iraqi elections, Social Security reform and — speaking of Frankenstein — the Michael Jackson trial.

Gods and monsters came to mind Sunday night while I was watching, of all, things, the Discovery Channel’s docudrama on the last days of Pompeii. As every schoolchild knows, the Roman city on the Bay of Naples was wiped out in 79 A.D. when Mount Vesuvius erupted with such ferocity that it caused what the geologists call a “pyroclastic event,” which, suffice it to say, was quick and deadly. About 5,000 people were killed.

Disturbingly, the old volcano is due to blow again — and soon. Only now, there are some 700,000 people living within a three-mile “red zone” and there is no realistic hope of safely evacuating them when the next, inevitable disaster strikes. Many Italians living in the shadow of beautiful Mount Vesuvius have a fatalistic attitude. Few have accepted financial incentives from the government to move.

So we’re fortunate here in the New York suburbs. We have no natural horrors in this neck of the global woods. We live in a temperate clime on solid ground. There are no volcanoes, tsunamis and hardly ever any Florida-style hurricanes. A “drought” means, at worst, a ban on lawn sprinkling.

But we do have the Indian Point nuke plants, a man-made fact of life whose 10-mile radius reaches a population of more than 367,000 people.

Unlike the forces of nature, however, Indian Point theoretically can be stopped. And for a moment, it really seemed to be on the political ropes.

It’s still operating.

Indeed, nearly 41 months after Sept. 11, the nuclear energy industry is effectively declaring victory in the Indian Point debate. The Edison Electric Institute, a major trade association for U.S. shareholder electric companies, handed Indian Point owner Entergy the institute’s first Advocacy Excellence Award.

Announced last month, the award was given for Entergy’s public relations campaign to defend the plants “against efforts to force its closure in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.” In other words, Big Energy’s most immediate and most threatening enemy in the brave, new world of color-coded alerts was the supposed alliance of anti-nuke activists, soccer moms, media naysayers and politicians.

With Indian Point, it’s always been code green — the color of money.

Yesterday, I called Laurence P. Gottlieb, the director of communications for Entergy Nuclear Northeast in White Plains, and asked him if the EEI award was official confirmation that his side had “won.” An accomplished spinmeister, Gottlieb danced around the question for a while before finally saying, “To me, the debate is over. The debate as it was originally framed is over. It’s in a new phase of evolution.”

The old debate, according to Gottlieb, centered on the question of whether to immediately close Indian Point.

“That’s gone,” he said.

Nevertheless, Gottlieb believes that the nuke plants will likely remain a political football at election time.

But the new debate which has taken hold in recent months has to do with what he called “macro” issues — the cost of alternative forms of energy vs. nuclear power. The pro-nuke mantra is that without Indian Point’s 2,000 megawatts, the cost of energy in the region would rise by $1 billion a year.

That’s the gamble. In the end, it’s always about money. It’s about odds, the laws of probability. And having trust in the wisdom of Gottlieb’s bosses.

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a lot better now. Good night, Pompeii.”

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