““Of all the places in all the world where no one in their right mind would build scores of nuclear power plants, Japan would be pretty near the top of the list,” concluded Leuren Moret, a radiation specialist trained at the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Weapons Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., in an op-ed piece that appeared in The Japan Times in 2004.

One of the other places that may rank near the top of that list: New York City.

A growing number of scientists and emergency planners are calling on federal and state regulators to shut down the Indian Point nuclear reactor about 40 miles north of New York City, on the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York. While many of Indian Point’s critics have expressed concerns about safety at the nuclear plant for years, the nuclear crisis in Japan has caused their ranks to swell over the past several weeks.

In 2003, James Lee Witt, former director of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, assessed the U.S. government’s emergency-response plan for a nuclear power-plant disaster at Indian Point. The conclusion: there was no government plan adequate to respond to a disaster at Indian Point, which is surrounded by more than 20 million people on any given day.

A month before the 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan triggered the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power reactors, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for approving a regulation that would allow radioactive waste to be stored at Indian Point for at least 60 years after closure. Shockingly, the NRC’s new policy would allow the long-term storage of nuclear waste without requiring any review of the potential safety and environmental risks posed by such storage. The lawsuit asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to invalidate the NRC rule for failure to comply with environmental laws.

“Whether you’re for or against re-licensing Indian Point, we can all agree on one thing: Before dumping radioactive waste at the site for at least 60 years after it’s closed, our communities deserve a thorough review of the environmental, public health, and safety risks such a move would present,” said Schneiderman in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

To put this in perspective, the U.S. government has invested $9 billion developing a storage site for reprocessed nuclear spent fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which is perhaps the most studied geological structure in the world. Despite this enormous investment in building an underground, secure storage site, Nevada’s less than 3 million residents have refused to endorse the project as a result of safety and environmental concerns. If storing spent nuclear fuel in deep inside a mountain surrounded on all sides by about 100 miles of empty desert is unsafe, it seems odd that the NRC would endorse a plan to store the same nuclear fuel within a stone’s throw of roughly 15% of the nation’s entire population.

In March, Schneiderman filed a petition with the NRC. The petition asked the federal agency to do its job and pursue an enforcement action against Indian Point, which is owned and operated by New Orleans, La.-based Entergy Corporation, for a laundry list of safety regulation violations that could compromise the plant’s safety during an emergency. Schneiderman said Indian Point had failed to comply with several fire safety regulations. Specific violations alleged in the petition included:

.      The plant has not strengthened electrical cables to withstand fire damage for one to three hours, a regulation established to provide necessary plant security in the event of an emergency.

.      Rather than installing automatic response systems, the plant would rely on employees to perform a series of complex manual actions, which the NRC has not authorized as a means of adequately protecting nuclear facilities in the event of a fire.

.      The plant has not installed required fire detectors or fire suppression systems in various locations.

“In the wake of Japan’s crisis, our country’s nuclear facilities should be bolstering their safety measures, yet Indian Point is looking to weaken its precautionary measures,” Schneiderman said.

Fires at nuclear facilities are often the trigger for nuclear catastrophes. The possibility that terrorists or hostile foreign states could take advantage of Indian Point’s vulnerabilities is keeping many of Indian Point’s most vehement critics awake at night. The vulnerability results from Indian Point’s current method of storing irradiated or “spent” nuclear fuel. Rather than speculate on specific scenarios, it is enough to say that starting a fire at Indian Point – whether by accident, sabotage or terrorist attack – could lead to a Fukushima-grade crisis.

Given the demographic context in which such a crisis would occur, the consequences would almost certainly be catastrophic.”

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