Volume 20, Number 45 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 23 - 29, 2011
A Time to Get Serious
BY Julie Menin
As the devastating events unfold halfway around the globe in Japan, it’s time to consider – how prepared are we? Around 35 miles from New York City is the Indian Point nuclear plant. The plant sits in a more densely populated area than any of the other 66 nuclear facilities in the United States: 20 million people and the financial capital of our country are in proximity to Indian Point.
Indian Point, which is owned by the Entergy Corporation, provides up to 30 percent of electricity used by the greater New York metropolitan area. While in many respects nuclear power is far cleaner than other energy alternatives, there are many reasons to be wary about this facility and the security threats it may present to our city.
ndian Point is not a new facility with modern technology, and poor management and mechanical problems have plagued it since the first of its reactors was opened more than 40 years ago. There have been incidents involving minor explosions and coolant leaks, as recently as a few years ago. The most serious incident involved a radioactive leak that resulted in the plant being shut down for 11 months in 2000.
The facility has also faced numerous environmental rebukes. In 2010, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (D.E.C.) denied Entergy a water permit, ruling that the antiquated cooling system violated the federal Clean Water Act. The plant takes in 2.5 billion gallons of Hudson River water each day to keep the plant cool and dumps the heated water back when it is through, a practice that has lead to the devastation of river life. And it also raises a disconcerting question: should the water become contaminated in the event of a catastrophe, what will protect the millions of us living downstream? At a minimum, even if there is not a disaster, the water coolant system must be updated to provide proper environmental safeguards.
Perhaps most alarmingly, data has existed for many years that show that in the event of a terrorist act or natural disaster, the number of deaths that would be caused both by short- and long-term radiation exposure would be catastrophic. Specifically, a 1982 Sandia National Laboratories study that was submitted to Congress, estimated potential deaths from radiation exposure for each of the nuclear plants in the United States. Indian Point has one of the highest estimated casualties for any nuclear plant. The study indicated that there could be 50,000 near-term deaths at one of the reactors at Indian Point. The environmental group Riverkeeper commissioned a study showing that depending on the weather conditions, an attack at Indian Point could cause 44,000 near-term deaths and 518,000 long-term deaths from cancer of individuals living within 50 miles of the plant, thus indicating a significant risk to residents in New York City.
Now is the time for a serious evaluation of the safety, security and environmental risks posed by Indian Point and for a real examination of alternate energy sources. The oldest reactor, Indian Point 1, was closed in the 1970s, but the operating licenses for Indian Point 2 and 3 expire in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Unfortunately, renewal of these licenses by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is nearly automatic.
The upcoming license renewal should be an opportunity to review how vulnerable the plant is to various dangers. Entergy claims the plant could withstand a large earthquake (the plant sits on two fault lines), or a plane crash or a large explosive, but the report it cites is by a pro-nuclear lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. In the post-9/11 world, we would expect that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would demand a more objective analysis than that, but an independent review has yet to be conducted.
Our security depends on the safety of this nuclear plant. It’s time that we demand honest environmental standards and real safety assurances in the event of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. The N.R.C. must commission an independent safety and environmental analysis well before it even considers renewing the plant’s licenses. And such a review must also include a real emergency evacuation plan. The ongoing tragedy in Japan must be our wakeup call. We dwell in the shadow of a major nuclear power plant; we ignore the risks at our peril.
Julie Menin is Chairperson of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan.