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Indian Point casts nuclear shadow over North Jersey

A view of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant on the banks of the Hudson River in Buchanan, NY. (JAMES W. ANNESS/THE RECORD)

  • Indian Point Proximity Map
  • Average annual exposure to radiation chart

    Roaring south along the Hudson River on Sept. 11, American Airlines Flight 11 passed over the twin domes of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Forty-six miles and seven minutes later, the hijacked plane slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

    Within hours, all 103 U.S. nuclear plants were on high alert. And when American troops in Afghanistan found diagrams of U.S. nuclear facilities abandoned in enemy hide-outs, the perceived threat became real.

    With almost 17 million people, 6 percent of the U.S. population, living within 50 miles of Indian Point, the plant suddenly seemed a prime target for terrorists - especially since the planes that brought down the trade center were big enough and traveling fast enough to crack open the plant's concrete containment domes, if past research is a guide.

    Since Sept. 11, New Yorkers up and down the Hudson Valley have intensified the clamor for the Westchester County plant's closure. The terrorist threat, coupled with the plant's spotty safety record and its location just north of the nation's largest city, critics say, make it too dangerous to operate.

    In New Jersey, however, which has no evacuation plan and few measures in place to deal with a major release, public officials and private citizens behave as if the state border were an invisible shield against a threat just 15 miles away.

    "I think because we live in a different state, we're not getting involved," says Karen Ranzi, a Ramsey resident who, at the urging of friends, attended Westchester County forums on Indian Point. "I used to listen to people talk about what might happen and think, 'How terrible.' But then I realized that we could be affected, and that scared me."

    If the worst happened, people living closest to Indian Point would suffer the most. Thousands would be doomed to severe burns and radiation sickness. But if enough radiation escaped, and if the winds were blowing strong from the north, New Jersey, too, could face disaster.

    An odorless, invisible cloud of irradiated particles could drift south. A heavy rain could wash this "hot" dust out of the air and onto homes in Montvale, gardens in Ringwood, or playgrounds in Paramus. For most, the health effects might be undetectable at first, but they could show up years later in spikes of thyroid cancer or leukemia.

    Many scientists insist the plant is safe from attack. Yet consider reactions in the two states:

    Thirteen municipalities in Westchester County, seven in Rockland County, and seven members of New York's congressional delegation have demanded a shutdown.

    In New Jersey, which receives no power from Indian Point, Edgewater is the only municipality to call for a shutdown. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, alone among his colleagues, has suggested a temporary closure until Indian Point's security can be reviewed

    New York Gov. George Pataki has questioned evacuation plans around Indian Point, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wants the 10-mile-radius evacuation zone expanded to 50 miles. That would cover Bergen and Passaic counties and increase the number of potential evacuees from 247,000 to 16.8 million.

    New Jersey, with 3.8 million people living 50 miles or less from Indian Point, has no emergency evacuation plans, except to shelter fleeing Rockland County residents. No coordinated response plans in case of a radiation release. No regular contact with New York.

    Tim Keenan, assistant superintendent of the state's Radiological Emergency Response Technical Unit, insists, however, that "more than adequate'' contacts are in place between New York and New Jersey "on the local level."

    That would come as a surprise to Joseph Forbes, Passaic County's emergency management coordinator. He says his office would look to the state for guidance in the event of an Indian Point emergency.

    "At this point, I don't think there's anything in place'' in terms of nuclear disaster planning, says Dolores Choteborsky, a county spokeswoman.

    In one aspect of emergency preparedness, both states have a jump. They're stockpiling doses of potassium iodide, a drug that protects the vulnerable thyroid gland from cancer-causing radiation. The states are limiting the drug, however, to people living within 10 miles of nuclear reactors. That means North Jersey - at least 15 miles from Indian Point and roughly 70 miles from Oyster Creek, the nearest New Jersey reactor - would be out of luck.

    Possible scenario|for nuclear disaster

    The terrorist threat to Indian Point could come in many forms - a truck bomb, a sustained power outage, an artillery attack.

    But after Sept. 11, the most obvious, and ominous, fear is of a hijacked airplane.

    In 1982, federal researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois determined that a dive-bombing, 336,000-pound Boeing 707 traveling at 460 mph could pierce the 3-foot-thick walls of a containment dome, with the resultant explosion compromising the shield that protects the reactor.

    The Boeing 767s that brought down the trade center towers each weighed 412,000 pounds. Flight 175, the one that sliced into the south tower, was traveling at an estimated 586 mph.

    No one has yet looked at the impact of a larger plane on a dome. After Sept. 11, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it would.

    "That's the dilemma," says Gordon Wren Jr., head of Rockland County's Office of Emergency Management. "[The containment dome] is one of the strongest structures in the world by design. But what if you get [400,000] to 500,000 pounds of plane loaded with fuel?"

    Even more vulnerable than the reactors - Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3 - is 40 years' worth of nuclear waste outside the steel-reinforced concrete of the containment domes.

    Spent fuel rods, no longer powerful enough to run a reactor but still highly radioactive, must cool down for decades. At Indian Point, at least 600 tons of them are submerged in 23 feet of water in tanks built into the side of a hill.

    If the tanks' roofs or walls were damaged and the water drained away, the rods could ignite and spew radioactivity.

    A 2000 NRC study calculated that a large commercial aircraft had a 50-50 chance of breaking through a spent fuel tank's 5-foot-thick concrete walls. At Indian Point, the tanks' walls are 4 feet thick.

    "The spent fuel pools are not the easiest target, but they could be hit," says David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group.

    No one knows for sure exactly what would happen next. But assuming that a catastrophe would release substantial amounts of radiation, interviews with experts and a review of private and government research provide a grim scenario:

    Tens of thousands living within 17 miles of the Buchanan, N.Y., plant would get hit with enough radiation to die within one year. A 1982 analysis by Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, using 1980 census numbers, put that potential death toll at 50,000.

    The invisible plume would contain iodine gas and particles of strontium-90, tritium, and cesium-137, the deadly isotope that so poisoned a 20-mile area around the ravaged Chernobyl nuclear plant that the land remains uninhabitable 16 years later.

    Cesium-137 is "a risk to all organs," says Arthur Upton, former director of the National Cancer Institute and professor emeritus at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. "It's a source of acute radiation sickness, which is contracted by a large exposure, which means damage has been done to the bone marrow. In the long term, there's the risk of leukemia.''

    As the plume traveled, it would disperse and weaken, but radioactive particles could still be inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. They could sit on blades of grass, dissolve in water, coat car tops and roofs, enter homes through drafty windows or air conditioning ducts, or be carried on the fur of pets.

    For New Jersey, questions of life and death could depend on whims of the weather.

    Radioactive particles would have to ride a wind out of the north. Most of the year, the wind in the New York City area blows toward the east. But for three months - January, March, and April - it comes from the north more often than during the rest of the year, 10 percent of the time instead of an average of 6 percent.

    Whichever way the wind blows, panicked residents seeking safety would likely snarl the Hudson Valley's highways and winding two-lane roads. Emergency evacuation plans for New York's Westchester, Putnam, Orange, and Rockland counties have been widely criticized as inadequate; one Putnam County legislator dismisses them as "make-believe."

    And what authorities call "shadow evacuation" - the fleeing of thousands of people outside the official evacuation zone - could clog highways in Bergen and Passaic counties, which have no coordinated evacuation plans.

    Radioactive particles that float as far as New Jersey would, in most cases, kill slowly.

    Mahwah, for example, 18 miles from Indian Point, would receive a peak radiation dose of 100,000 millirems, enough to increase a person's likelihood of getting cancer by 10 percent, according to Edwin Lyman, scientific director at the Nuclear Control Institute, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., that examines risks of nuclear terrorism.

    In Ridgewood, 27 miles from Indian Point, the anticipated peak dose of 50,000 millirems would mean a 5 percent increase in cancer probability.

    By comparison, the typical American is exposed to about 360 millirems a year. The dose from a chest X-ray is 10 millirems, a mammogram, 30. The human body contains natural radioactive elements that emit 39 millirems annually.

    The risk would be far greater for children, who are up to 10 times more susceptible to radiation-caused cancers than adults.

    "Their cells divide faster, and damage to their DNA from radiation exposure gets more widely distributed in their tissues," Lyman says.

    Radioactivity would poison land and the food grown on it as far as 40 miles away. Irradiated water could be dangerous for decades - no fishing, no bathing, no drinking. Reservoirs might have to be condemned.

    Homeowners would face costly cleanups. Simply hosing off the car, the house, or the dog might wash away radioactive particles, but the water would then have to be disposed of properly.

    The Sandia analysis, now 20 years old, estimated that property damage around Indian Point after a significant radiation release would cost $314 billion. Accounting for inflation, but not for rising property values, that comes to $580 billion in today's dollars.

    Insurance companies, however, don't pay for damagefrom nuclear events, and Congress has absolved all nuclear plant owners of liability in excess of $200 million. In the event of an accident that causes greater damage, Congress requires plant owners to pay into a fund, with each plant contributing $80 million to cover the damage caused by one. Assuming all owners paid up, that fund would contain $9.2 billion.

    How vulnerable|is Indian Point?

    Some experts maintain this nightmare scenario is exaggerated. They point to the industry's solid 40-year safety record and stepped-up security since Sept. 11. They argue that the plant's 1,500 jobs and the 2,000 megawatts it supplies to New York City and Westchester - enough to power 2 million homes - are worth what they consider a small risk.

    "Indian Point and most nuclear power plants in general are designed with multiple safeguards and redundancies to prevent any kind of emergency," says Elizabeth Benjamin, environmental health specialist at the Rockland County Health Department.

    Nonetheless, changes are being made. Entergy, the New Orleans-based company that owns and operates Indian Point, already had metal and explosive detectors at the plant and added road barriers and armed National Guard sentries after the attacks.

    "Since Sept. 11 and before Sept. 11, we were one of the best-defended non-military industrial facilities in the country," says Jim Steets, an Entergy spokesman.

    The plant is also defended from the air, but Steets says he doesn't know details because they're classified.

    "If I knew what air support was being provided, I probably couldn't tell you," he says.

    It's been Steets' job since Sept. 11 to counter swelling anti-Indian Point sentiment. Entergy is running radio commercials touting the favorable safety records of the seven other nuclear reactors it owns and newspaper ads for Indian Point proclaiming it "Safe. Secure. Vital."

    In addition, Entergy dropped "nuclear" from the plant's name after Sept. 11. It's now the Indian Point Energy Center.

    Steets particularly objects to any comparisons between Indian Point and Chernobyl, the Ukrainian reactor that on April 26, 1986, became a notorious symbol of the perils of nuclear energy. "There are people going from town to town telling people that we're all going to die," Steets says. "That's just not right."

    At Chernobyl, a design flaw caused power to ramp up while an emergency shutdown was in progress, resulting in disaster. Ironically, plant operators had disabled the backup safety system in order to run tests.

    At Indian Point, by contrast, power cuts off immediately when the reactor shuts down. That can be triggered by any number of factors, including changes in temperature or air pressure stemming from a breach in the containment dome.

    "The structures [at Indian Point] are designed to be impenetrable," Steets says. "Are they absolutely impervious? You can always come up with a bigger bomb."

    Many scientists agree with Steets that the risk posed by nuclear plants is minuscule. But even a slim chance of disaster is too much for growing numbers of New Yorkers, who are ratcheting up anti-Indian Point pressure through forums, rallies, and television and radio call-in shows.

    "People who are against nuclear power are using Sept. 11 as a pretense to shut down the plants," says Jeff Binder, director of the International Nuclear Safety Center at the Argonne National Laboratory.

    But jitters over Indian Point emerged long before Sept. 11, fueled over the years by two main concerns.

    One is the plant's proximity to so many people. No other nuclear plant in the United States has as many neighbors. The second is Indian Point's safety record. No other plant in the United States has been cited as often for violations.

    Activists frequently refer to Indian Point as the least-safe nuclear plant in the nation. While Indian Point 3 has kept a clean safety record since the NRC began a new oversight program in April 2000, Indian Point 2 is the only reactor slapped with a "red finding," requiring the agency's highest level of scrutiny.

    "The Indian Point 2 plant has shortcomings in a number of areas we're very concerned about," says Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman. "Until they get certain things straightened out, they'll be under greater scrutiny.''

    The red finding followed a February 2000 generator leak that spilled 19,197 gallons of radioactive water into the containment building and released radioactive steam into the air. Nobody was injured or exposed to radiation, but the plant was closed for 11 months while Consolidated Edison, the owner at the time, installed four new steam generators.

    Entergy purchased Indian Point 2 from Con Ed on Sept. 6, 2001.

    "Con Edison had some problems making corrections in a timely fashion," Sheehan says. "Time will tell if Entergy can improve on that."

    The NRC has slapped Indian Point 2 with two other reprimands since 2000, each resulting in a "yellow finding," requiring the second-strictest level of oversight.

    The first was based on human error. Four of seven crews failed their plant operators' recertification exams in October, the NRC says. The second came when NRC inspectors found a backlog in equipment maintenance.

    Indian Point's next NRC evaluation is scheduled for June. In the months until then, activists pushing for a shutdown will try to gather more steam. The city of Hoboken plans to consider a shutdown resolution April 17, and the Sierra Club's North Jersey chapter will debate the issue May 9.

    But simply closing Indian Point poses its own set of problems.

    In its absence, utilities would have to buy power from other sources, boosting electricity bills up to 30 percent and increasing the likelihood of summer blackouts in New York City, says Gavin J. Donohue, executive director of the Independent Power Producers of New York, an industry group.

    "There's nothing to indicate the plant is a danger," Donohue says. "This is politics. Are we just going to succumb to terrorist threats? We can't subject ourselves to that. In fact, shutting down Indian Point doesn't make it any less of a terrorist threat."

    Donohue's point is this: Even if the plant no longer generated power, the spent fuel remains behind.

    "Shutting down the plant would make it about 80 to 85 percent safer, but not completely safe," says Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    Some scientists promote dry cask storage as a solution to the spent fuel problem. This involves sealing the spent rods in lead-lined concrete coffins. About a dozen nuclear facilities store their waste this way.

    Entergy recently unveiled plans to move its waste into onsite dry casks, starting in 2004. Before Sept. 11, the company planned to shift only Indian Point 2's spent fuel because that reactor's pools are filling up, Steets says. Public pressure prompted the decision to encase Indian Point 3's spent fuel as well, Steets acknowledges.

    "We feel the spent fuel is safe where it is," he says. "In all honesty, we have supporters who'd feel better with the fuel in dry cask storage."

    North Jersey's |emergency plans

    Driving north along the east bank of the Hudson River toward the Bear Mountain Bridge, most people notice hawks soaring, kayakers paddling, and anglers casting lines.

    When Andrew Spano drives that winding stretch of Route 9, he envisions emergency evacuation.

    "The evacuation plan we have right now is not the best plan," says Spano, the Westchester county executive. "But we're working at making it better."

    Spano is candid about Indian Point. He wishes it had never been built. But he takes a pragmatist's view.

    "We're stuck with it. We can't close it," he says. "The only ones who can close it are Entergy, which just invested millions in it, and the NRC. And the NRC will close it only if they think it's dangerous, and they don't. So my job is to make sure we have the best emergency plan we can."

    In Rockland County, emergency managers turn stoic when asked about the location of their office, which is within Indian Point's 10-mile emergency planning zone. "That poses some interesting problems for us," says Nick Longo, the county's radiological emergency planning coordinator.

    In the event of a radioactive release, Rockland students will be evacuated to schools in Bergen County. The fact that none of the emergency bus drivers had Bergen County maps until recently highlights only some of the little things that can go wrong.

    "I have no idea how my school got on Rockland County's list," says Gregory Walters, principal of Bergen County Vocational Technical High School in Paramus, which is slated to take in children from 11 Rockland schools. "I've never been approached by anyone about this."

    Walters says he discovered this only when he received an emergency preparedness booklet in the mail - on April 3. It was sent not by Bergen or Rockland officials, but by the administrator of a nursery school whose students would be evacuated to Walters' school.

    "It's a nice brochure," Walters adds. "It's the first time I've seen it."

    Other host sites include Bergen County Police and Fire Academy in Mahwah, Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, Paramus Catholic High School, St. Joseph's High School in Montvale, and Bergen County Academies in Hackensack.

    Bergen County emergency officials seem better prepared for other aspects of a Rockland evacuation.The county's radiological response team - some two-dozen specially trained police and health department employees - would scan buses and passengers with hand-held radiation detectors. In the event of a larger emergency, more than 200 local volunteers trained in radiation detection would be pressed into service.

    But if a North Jersey evacuation were needed, county officials plan to rely on local municipalities, according to Dwane Razzetti of the Bergen County Emergency Management Office.

    Bob Greenlaw, director of emergency services for Ridgewood, is confident such an evacuation could be accomplished in an orderly manner - given adequate time.

    "If we had two or three days, we could do that," Greenlaw says. "But if we had to get everybody out within a short period of time, who knows? How many cars fit on how many highways? It gets to a point where it's physically impossible. Take a look at Labor Day weekend traffic."

    Spano, the Westchester county executive, says regardless of whether radiation reaches New Jersey, officials should be concerned about shadow evacuation - the panicked flight of people well outside the 10-mile emergency planning zone.

    History bears him out. When Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant experienced a partial meltdown in 1979, the state ordered a limited evacuation of 3,400 pregnant women and preschool children living within five miles. Instead, 144,000 people fled, some living up to 40 miles from the plant.

    Today, 60 percent of people living within 50 miles of Indian Point say they'd flee in the event of a major accident, according to a poll taken last month by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion and commissioned by Riverkeeper, a Putnam County environmental group.

    "The minute people in New Jersey hear about an incident at Indian Point, they'll do something," Spano says. "They'll get in their cars and go. These kinds of things need to be taken into account.

    "There should be concern in New Jersey. We're all inextricably linked, now."


    Milestones and safety problems at the Indian Point Energy Center:

  • 1962: Station's first nuclear reactor, Indian Point 1, goes on-line, operated by Consolidated Edison for 12 years.

  • 1974: Indian Point 1 closes down; Indian Point 2, also run by Con Ed, opens. Indian Point 3 is under construction, but the utility, losing money from the Middle East oil embargo, agrees to sell it to the New York Power Authority.

  • 1976: Indian Point 3 goes on-line.

  • Oct. 17, 1980: Indian Point 2 closes for eight months after spill of 100,000 gallons of non-radioactive water goes undetected for two weeks.

  • 1992: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission fines the Power Authority $463,000 for multiple management and equipment failures; the NRC also reports 25 to 30 operators admitted "occasionally" falsifying records.

  • 1993: Indian Point 3 is taken off-line in February due to management problems and safety violations; the shutdown lasts 2 years. Later, the NRC fines the Power Authority $300,000 for 17 safety violations disclosed in April.

  • November-December 1993: Rushing to replace two valves at the still-closed Indian Point 3 reactor before inspection, engineers install them backward, blocking cooling systems and disabling backup generators. "The NRC's view is that we are a risk to ourselves and to those around us," plant newsletter reports.

  • May 1994: After NRC orders inspection of spent fuel pool at Indian Point 1, Con Ed announces that up to 150 gallons of radioactive water have been leaking every day for four years.

  • July 19, 1995: Indian Point 3 restarted. After replacing 19 of the top 27 managers, the Power Authority asserts that "nuclear religion" instituted at plant will insure safe operations.

  • Sept. 14, 1995: Power Authority shuts Indian Point 3 again after NRC finds more safety problems; a predicted three-month shutdown stretches to seven.

  • June 1996: Three months after Indian Point 3 reopens, hydrogen gas from a cooling system leaks onto electrical wiring and causes small explosion in a non-nuclear part of the complex.

  • Feb. 15, 2000: Radioactive steam leaks from Indian Point 2 after faulty tubes send 19,197 gallons of radioactive water into containment building; NRC issues "red finding," requiring highest level of monitoring in the nation; plant is closed for 11 months.

  • Nov. 21, 2000: Entergy, a New Orleans-based corporation with $10 billion annual revenues, buys Indian Point 3.

  • March 2, 2001: Indian Point 2 earns "yellow finding" - second-most-severe warning - for backlogged repairs.

  • Sept. 6, 2001: Entergy buys Indian Point 2.

  • Sept. 11, 2001: Within hours of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, an NRC spokeswoman says U.S nuclear reactors were designed to withstand the crash of a fully loaded jumbo jet.

  • Sept. 22, 2001: NRC backtracks, acknowledging containment domes were not designed for the type of jets used on Sept. 11.

  • October 2001: Four of Indian Point 2's seven control-room teams flunk recertification exams; three of them subsequently pass a retest.

  • Feb. 14, 2002: Entergy says ongoing leak of radioactive water - about 4 ounces a day - into "clean" water of one steam generator is too small to be considered dangerous.

  • March 2002: Indian Point 2 guard is fired for allegedly pulling a gun on a colleague as a joke; his supervisor is fired for not immediately reporting the incident.

    TOMORROW: An Editorial.



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