“Aboard the Hudson Riverkeeper – The radio is silent as John Lipscomb steers his Chesapeake Bay deadrise through the early morning chop, Indian Point in his sights.   Less than 3,000 feet and closing. He checks his heading, glances through a pair of binoculars at two patrol boats tied to the nuclear plant’s bulkhead, and continues on course.   Just more than 2,500 feet now.

After a few more seconds, with the cooling towers growing taller, Lipscomb closes to within 2,000 feet of the plant, well within missile range.   Had Lipscomb been wielding any one of a number of black market weapons systems, he could have fired on the two nuclear reactors.

Indian Point’s patrol boats haven’t budged.

“It strikes me that it would be incredibly easy to get around the security forces that are in place,” Lipscomb says as he turns his vessel from the facility, satisfied with his test of riverside security.

For three hours Sunday, Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group, gave the Times Herald-Record a tour of some of the Hudson River’s pollution trouble spots and nuclear security threats. The 36-foot Hudson Riverkeeper moves at trolling speed as it approaches the twin nuclear towers.   “What they’re doing is like a police helicopter flying around the World Trade Center trying to protect them, Lipscomb says. “It’s not going to work.”

Since Sept. 11, 2001, nuclear facilities, chemical plants and other potential terrorist targets have drawn the renewed attention of government regulators, politicians and local security advocates. The federal government has spent millions upgrading facilities in hopes of dissuading an attack that could claim countless lives.   At Indian Point, more than $50 million has been spent in the past three years on security, plant officials say. Upgrades include semi-automatic weapons for security personnel and the installation of a 900-foot seclusion zone in the river. That perimeter is marked by buoys.

“If you guys were anywhere near our buoys, we were watching you,” spokesman James Steets says of our trip.   He says the plant’s 6 feet of concrete stands between any attack and the plant’s nuclear fuel.   “We have cameras and security personnel who are watching what’s going on,” Steets says. “We’re very confident of our capabilities.”

Others are not.

Critics continue to demand action, warning that a radiation leak could cause tens of thousands of cancer deaths in the greater-New York City area.   Lisa Rainwater van Suntum, director of Riverkeeper’s Indian Point campaign, says no matter what the plant implements, it won’t be sufficient.   “We’re calling for the closure of Indian Point, because we don’t believe that even with the most high-tech measures in place it can be protected,” she says. “It’s the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

While an attack may be the only sure-fire way to settle the argument – something neither Indian Point nor Riverkeeper wants – some independent weapons analysts acknowledge the plant is vulnerable from the river.   Charles D. Ferguson, an expert in nuclear terrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., says a water-based attack at Indian Point could be coordinated with an air or land assault to maximize plant damage.   Last year, Ferguson co-authored “The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism”, which explored the possibility.    “One of our scenarios is that some terrorist commando group could fire a (rocket-propelled grenade) or mortar on a nuclear facility,” Ferguson says.   “I think they would have to do more than that if they wanted to cripple the plant or cause a leak,” he adds, but “we can’t rule out the possibility” a multi-pronged approach would be effective.

Others go one step further, suggesting a shoulder-fired weapon alone could do significant damage.   With a rocket propelled grenade, someone would have to be “closer than a few hundred yards” to the plant, says Jim O’Halloran, the London-based editor of Land Based Air Defense.   “Let’s hope the security wouldn’t allow for that.   “But if you’re talking anti-tank weapons, bunker busters, you can use anything up to about a nautical mile,” or about 6,000 feet, he says. “In that case, yes, there are anti-tank weapons that would do the job with penetrating warheads.”

And that, for Lipscomb, is a dangerous proposition.    “What we see is any number of ways the plant is vulnerable from the water,” the boat captain says as his Indian Point tour ended, the plant passing out of view.    “We want the plant closed because we don’t think it can be protected 100 percent.””

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