Nuclear plant's safety criticized

The Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant, generates some 2,000 megawatts of electricity yearly.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | January 24, 2003

"To have Indian Point operating when there are such holes in the security is just unconscionable."

—Julie Roginsky

On the banks of the Hudson River, about 35 miles north of Times Square, sits the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant that houses two reactors and generates an estimated 2,000 megawatts, or $1 billion, of electricity per year.

Indian Point is located in an area more densely populated than any land adjacent to any of the nation's 103 operational nuclear power plants. More than 20 million people live in a 50-mile radius of Indian Point.

Considering that one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11 flew almost directly over the facility, it is hardly surprising that many environmental and citizen's groups as well as several members of Congress have expressed concern about the security of the plant.

Criticism of the plant's security increased in December when The New York Times reported that an internal review, paid for by Entergy, the owner of Indian Point, detailed severe flaws in security at the plant.

Further controversy erupted Jan. 10 with the release of the draft version of a report commissioned by Gov. George Pataki and prepared by a consulting group run by James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The summary of this draft is hardly optimistic.

Among the security deficiencies cited, the draft says that security measures "do not consider the possible additional ramifications of a terrorist caused release [of radiation]" and "do not consider the reality and impacts of a spontaneous evacuation [of surrounding communities]."

The draft also criticizes current emergency plans for being "built on compliance with regulations," and not with an eye to protecting people from radiation exposure; for assuming that residents nearby the plant "will comply with official government directions;" and for including drills that "are of limited use in identifying inadequacies and improving subsequent responses."

"[I]t is our conclusion that the current radiological response system and capabilities are not adequate to...protect the people from an unacceptable dose of radiation in the event of a release from Indian Point, especially if the release is faster or larger than the design basis release," reads the report's summary.

The draft recommends that changes be made in federal regulations, partly to take into consideration the fact that Indian Point is located in the middle of such a highly populated area.

"Plants adjacent to high population areas should have different requirements than plants otherwise situated, because protective actions are more difficult and the consequences of failure or delay are higher," according to the draft. "Many of our specific recommendations are designed to assist the State and its jurisdictions in meeting the higher requirements we believe need to be developed primarily at the Federal level."

The Witt report has given even more ammunition to critics of Indian River, who have been calling for a shutdown of the plant.

A host of local and federal politicians have called for a temporary closure of the facility until its safety can be assured.

Locally, the executives of three counties closest to Indian Point Westchester, Orange and Rockland have all refused to sign off on their state-mandated emergency plans in protest, and the executive of Westchester County, Andy Spano, has publicly called for the shutdown of the reactors until the federal government upgrades its emergency response plans.

Politicians in New Jersey have also taken a strong stance against Indian Point.

Dennis McNerney, the executive of Bergen County, N.J., has vowed to use whatever means he has at his disposal to shut down Indian Point.

Julie Roginsky, spokesperson for McNerney, said county officials plan to take 30 days to check out local emergency plans. If McNerney judges them insufficient to deal with the possible threat, he may resort to legal action.

Roginsky points out the Indian Point evacuation plans only account for people living within a ten-mile radius of the plant.

However, half the residents of Bergen County live within 20 miles of the plant, and the county's entire population lives within 40 miles of the plant.

McNerney, she said, is also upset the Pataki has not taken a public stand on the Witt report a report that Pataki himself commissioned.

"To have Indian Point operating when there are such holes in the security is just unconscionable," Roginsky said.

Some groups, like Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group, have called for permanent closure of the plant.

Kim Spell, a spokesperson for Riverkeeper, said that her group does not normally focus on nuclear power issues. That focus, however, changed after Sept. 11, when the possibility of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plants seemed frighteningly plausible.

The results of a terrorist attack on Indian Point, Spell said, would be catastrophic.

Spell said the draft of the Witt report "said what we've been saying all along, which is that the evacuation plan doesn't work."

"We know that [terrorists] were originally targeting nuclear plants," Spell said. "[Indian Point] poses a real threat."

Spell said her group is particularly upset with Pataki, who "hasn't even called for a temporary shutdown," although he was the one who initiated the report.

"His response has been very tepid," she said.

But Entergy argues it has taken adequate steps to deal with potential acts of terrorism.

"Mr. Witt's assertion that the emergency plan does not fully take into account the possibility of a terrorist attack is contrary to all that's been done at Indian Point since 9/11 to prepare for just such a potential occurrence," according to a statement on the company's Web site. "Entergy has spent millions of dollars to upgrade security in contemplation of a range of potential terrorist scenarios, and feels confident we can repel any form of attack."

Recent rulings by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government organization that certifies the safety of nuclear plants, indicate that provisions for future licensing of these plants will not include risk of terrorist attacks in the licensing process.

Several members of Congress, however, are moving to change that by introducing legislation that would make anti-terrorism provisions part of licensing. These legislators include Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), James Jeffords (I-Vt.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.); as well as Representatives Edward Markey (D-Mass.), and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

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