“The federal government plans to launch a five-month investigation into
accidental releases of radioactive water at a New York state nuclear power
plant that’s fewer than 40 miles from greater Danbury.

Monday’s announcement comes as Connecticut and New York lawmakers are
calling for a wide-ranging safety study at the Indian Point plant. Members
of Congress want the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to assess the
plant’s evacuation plan, construction, maintenance and operational safety.

Their bill would also require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to
explain why it approved an evacuation plan that only covers residents who
live within 10 miles of the plant. At least one study indicated that a
severe radiation release could lead to thousands of deaths in a 50-mile

U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th Dist., has joined U.S. Rep. Sue Kelly,
R-N.Y., who represents Brewster and Southeast, and two other New York
congressmen in sponsoring the legislation.

“Nuclear power plants – including Indian Point – are vulnerable to terrorist
attack,” Shays said in a written statement. “Given Indian Point’s proximity
to highly populated areas, it’s critical the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
go to great lengths to ensure the facility is safe.”

Indian Point has been a lightning rod for controversy for about 30 years,
mainly because it is one of only a few nuclear plants in heavily populated
areas. The plant is 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan.

On Monday, the NRC mentioned only the investigation into water leaks that
have occurred in recent months. The water contained tritium, a radioactive
material that in high doses can cause cancer. But in this case, the NRC has
said, there wasn’t enough radiation to pose a health threat, even though
some of the water seemed to be seeping into the Hudson River.

Still, 11 NRC experts and one representative of New York state government
will conduct a review, which will be completed by Aug. 31. A report will be
written before the year’s end.

The NRC announcement seems unlikely to derail the congressional push for a
wide-ranging safety evaluation. Such an effort would cost the plant and
taxpayers millions of dollars, said James Steets, a spokesman for Entergy
Nuclear Northeast, which owns the Indian Point facility in Buchanan, N.Y. He
said the wide-ranging study is unnecessary.

“There is no hesitation on our part to participate and support this other
than the time and resources it would cost,” Steets said. “This plant has
already demonstrated in many evaluations over the years that we meet every

Steets acknowledged the ground water leaks near the plant, but he said the
small amounts of radiation posed no health threat. “The radioactivity on
site was just one-tenth of one percent,” he said. “It can’t get into the
drinking water and if it did, it’s so low that it wouldn’t be a hazard.”

Street also defended warning alarm tests at the facility. Though there have
been problems at times, all 14 warning sirens worked during a test last
week, he said.

Further, Steets said the plant has rapidly increased security since the
Sept. 11 terror attacks. Even if there was an incident, he said it’s highly
unlikely it would affect anyone outside the immediate area.

“A 10-mile evacuation zone is adequate. It’s most likely (there would be no
danger) two miles from the plant,” he said. “There is no reason for anybody
in Connecticut to ever evacuate during an incident.”

But Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who wrote a letter in
January to the state’s congressional delegation urging the safety
evaluation, said the plant is clearly a threat.

“We need a plan for the worst-case scenario instead of the least-dangerous
scenario,” said Blumenthal. “This plant is almost unique in that it is in a
densely populated area and near the world’s most populous city.”

About 20 million people – including many greater Danbury residents – live
within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point plant. A severe radiation release
carried by the wind could result in 44,000 deaths in the short term and
518,000 over a longer period within that 50 mile radius, according to the
Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists and the New York
environmental group Riverkeeper. Both groups oppose nuclear power plants.

Though Connecticut officials have estimated the number of state resident who
could be harmed, they won’t release that information, said Wayne Sandford,
deputy commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Management and
Homeland Security.

“It would depend on what is happening,” Sandford said of the state’s
possible response to an accident. “If it’s a multi-town area, we have buses
available for evacuations.”

Factors would also depend on the direction the wind is blowing and the size
of the radiation release.

“If the wind is blowing northeast, it would go toward Danbury,” he said. “If
it blows straight east, it would hit Ridgefield. ”

The congressional proposal calls for the federal study to be completed
within six months after it is enacted into law. That’s because Entergy
Nuclear Northeast is expected to submit its application for relicensing the
plant in January 2007.

“With radioactive material leaking out of Indian Point toward the Hudson
River and the plant continuing to experience a wide array of other safety
issues, it is quite clear that an Independent Safety Assessment is very much
needed,” U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., the bill’s lead sponsor said in
a written statement.

“Indian Point is not functioning properly,” he said, “and the health of area
residents and the integrity of the environment are being compromised.””

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