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
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
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
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
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
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
"At this point, I don't think there's anything in place'' in
terms of nuclear disaster planning, says Dolores Choteborsky, a
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
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
"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
"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
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
In Ridgewood, 27 miles from Indian Point, the anticipated peak
dose of 50,000 millirems would mean a 5 percent increase in cancer
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,"
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
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
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
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
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,
"Con Edison had some problems making corrections in a timely
fashion," Sheehan says. "Time will tell if Entergy can improve on
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
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
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
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
"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
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'
"It's a nice brochure," Walters adds. "It's the first time I've
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
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
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
"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
Milestones and safety problems at the Indian Point Energy