Fukushima on the Hudson: Could a nuclear accident happen near NYC?

New York's Indian Point reactors are 40 years old and could threaten millions of people

The Indian Point nuclear reactor in Buchanan, N.Y., is 25 miles from New York City.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility again grabbed headlines in recent weeks after reports of radioactive water leaks into the Pacific Ocean and repeated exposure of plant workers to dangerous levels of radiation once more focused attention on the disaster and its aftermath. A massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami in March 2011 damaged the Japanese plant's reactor containment and cooling systems, triggering explosions and three core meltdowns. After a string of troubling revelations surrounding Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games, the Japanese government has finally expressed a more open attitude toward international help to deal with the crisis.

While Japan's problems seem far away, anti-nuclear activists in the United States say a similar disaster — or perhaps one even worse — could happen at a nuclear plant just 25 miles north of New York City, at Entergy Corp.'s Indian Point Energy Center. Although that is dismissed as fearmongering by the nuclear industry, anti-nuclear campaigners say Indian Point poses a grave risk to 20 million people who live in the New York metropolitan area.

On Tuesday, Oct. 8, Naoto Kan, the former Japanese prime minister who was in office at the start of the Fukushima crisis, joined Gregory Jaczko, a former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); Peter Bradford, a public-utilities expert; Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer turned anti-nuclear activist; and consumer advocate Ralph Nader to discuss what they say are the untenable risks of nuclear power.

All called for Indian Point to be shuttered.

"Technically it is impossible to eliminate nuclear power plant accidents. There is only one way to eliminate accidents, which is to get rid of all nuclear power plants," Kan told an audience of about a hundred people at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.

"Our policymakers like to think that a nuclear accident can happen anywhere else, but not America," said Gundersen, who serves as chief engineer at consulting group Fairewinds Energy Education.

Gundersen said the danger Indian Point poses is actually greater than Fukushima, which lies about a hundred miles from Tokyo.

"The Japanese were the best at emergency planning in the world. They really took emergency planning seriously. They had an entire emergency-planning system collapse," Gundersen said, adding that the 30 years' worth of radioactive waste stored at Indian Point is far greater than what was housed at Fukushima at the time of the earthquake. "Indian Point has five times as much spent fuel in its spent-fuel pool than Dai-ichi," Gundersen said.

Public-interest advocate Nader stressed that the lack of preparedness for an accident in the New York City area was the most compelling reason for shutting the plant down.

"The way to arouse people around Indian Point is to repeatedly demand a real-life drill for the evacuation plan they're supposed to be putting in your local libraries. And not 10 miles around, where there may be 280,000 people, but go out 20 or 30" miles — distances that would include millions, Nader said.

"Anything is better than nuclear ... even fossil fuel as the transition," he said.

'Woefully insufficient'

About 20 million people live within 50 miles of Indian Point, which is in Buchanan, N.Y., along the Hudson River, from which the nuclear plant draws approximately 2.5 billion gallons of water each day to cool its reactors and use in its turbines. Environmental groups have flagged Indian Point as one of the United States' most dangerous nuclear plants, given its proximity to a major urban area and its persistent safety issues.

Riverkeeper, an environmental-advocacy group, is one of many calling for the federal government to deny Indian Point a 20-year renewal of its operating license. The license for one of the plant's two operating reactors expired last month, and the other will run out in December 2015.

In addition to concerns over being able to get people out of the potentially radiation-contaminated area in case of an accident, Riverkeepr cites regulators' overlooking safety at the plant.

"Indian Point has been granted so many exemptions from safety rules in the last 10 years that an NRC spokesman says he couldn't possibly recount them all," the organization notes on its list of 10 reasons to close Indian Point.

"To help jog NRC's memory — it has relaxed requirements for insulation on electrical cables controlling the reactors, reduced inspection requirements on rusting containment domes and leaking spent fuel pools (and) extended deadlines for equipment designed to prevent sabotage."

While also expressing concern about the safety issues, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental watchdog, said in a 2011 report that measures for evacuating people from the area around Indian Point are woefully insufficient.  

"Very large populations could be exposed to radiation in a major accident," the report states. "The reactors are located in a seismically active area, and their owner currently seeks to extend the reactors' lives beyond their engineered 40-year life span." 

The NRDC said millions of people in the New York City area would have to be administered potassium iodide pills, which help stop the body's absorption of a radioactive isotope of iodine, a component of fallout common to nuclear power plant accidents. Such a measure would be necessary if worst-case-scenario winds sent radioactive fallout toward the metropolis.

An Associated Press analysis found that population increases since the reactors at Indian Point were built in the 1970s puts greater strain on the ability to remove people from danger zones and rendered federal emergency plans outdated.

Evacuation for residents around the plant would be heavily dependent on a two-lane highway. For New York City and Long Island, the prospects are even more precarious, with millions of people relying on only a few points of exit from an area that already experiences daily gridlock along its bridges and tunnels.

"At no time in the history of man has anyone tried to move 17 million people in 48 hours," Kelly McKinney, New York City's deputy commissioner of preparedness, told the AP.

Long-term health concerns

If winds blew from the north, directly toward New York City, a Fukushima-level event would demand potassium iodide be administered to about 5 million people. In a catastrophic meltdown, 10 million would need to seek medical help.

For winds typical for an October night, one projection shows as many as 3,000 people could receive a severe, often deadly, dose of radiation from an accident rated about four times as bad as current estimates for the one at Fukushima.

The report looked at a number of scenarios for Indian Point, including a meltdown on the scale of the deadly 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. That accident rendered swaths of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus uninhabitable because of radiation.

"An accident at one of Indian Point's reactors on the scale of Chernobyl's would make Manhattan too radioactively contaminated to live in if the city fell within the plume," the NRDC report found.

It won't be safe to grow crops around Chernobyl for another 20,000 years, and the legacy of that accident lives on in tragic consequences for children born 27 years later.

According to Chernobyl Children International, "85 percent of Belarusian children are deemed to be Chernobyl victims: they carry 'genetic markers' that could affect their health at any time and can be passed on to the next generation."

In the area affected by the fallout from the plant's accident, the group says there was a 250 percent increase in congenital deformities.

Unnecessary anxiety?

Concerns over Indian Point are nothing new.

"An incident at the plant could have catastrophic impacts on the local environmental and human wealth by rendering much of the region uninhabitable in a worst-case scenario," then–U.S. Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., told a public NRC hearing on Indian Point's license renewal in 2007. Hall lost his seat in 2010.

In 2003 the state of New York commissioned a study of evacuation procedures for the area around Indian Point that found the strategy did not take into account the unpredictable human factor in staging a mass evacuation.

"The plans appear based on the premise that people will comply with official government directions rather than acting in accordance with what they perceive to be their best interests," the study found.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also said he would like to see the plant closed.

The nuclear industry denies that the plants it operates are unsafe, especially Indian Point, which nuclear power advocates say has received many safety upgrades.

In a statement provided to Al Jazeera by AREA, the Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, an industry public-relations group, former NRC chairman Dale Klein said, "Comparing the accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi to a hypothetical accident at Indian Point or Pilgrim is intellectually dishonest and resembles the classic fearmongering intended to create unnecessary anxiety." (The Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Plymouth, Mass., is a reactor of the same design as the ones that failed in Japan.) "The additional safety systems and safety procedures added to the U.S. nuclear power plants after the 9/11 attacks have greatly enhanced their ability to handle the loss of off-site power, loss of the emergency diesel generators and the loss of backup battery supplies," he said.

Rich Thomas, director of AREA, told Al Jazeera after Tuesday's panel that Indian Point operated safely during the calamity of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and that the risk of an earthquake was "inconsequential."

"When you look at extreme weather events and the performance of the plant, it's always passed with flying colors," he said.

But during Sandy, Indian Point had to shut down one reactor because the electrical grid was unstable. Other reactors in the storm's path suffered similar issues.

And of all the nuclear power plants in the U.S., Indian Point is considered the one at highest risk of experiencing an earthquake strong enough to pose a safety hazard. An NRC report from 2008 evaluated the quality of plant design and the likelihood of a major quake. Each year, Reactor 3 at Indian Point faces a 1-in-10,000 chance of an earthquake-related failure; that's about 70 times as likely as winning $10,000 with one Powerball lottery ticket and right on the cusp of what the NRC would consider cause for "immediate concern."

Thomas added that evacuation plans are sufficient.

"Homeland Security, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) — they've done an extraordinary job of ensuring that the counties surrounding Indian Point, the municipalities around Indian Point are trained and prepared for any scenario," he said. "The NRC coordinates with the other agencies, and they've all determined that the evacuation plans are adequate and the plant is safe."

50-mile radius

As for the 50-mile distance NRC chairman Jaczko said Americans in Japan should have stayed from Fukushima, Thomas dismissed that warning and said the NRC recommends an evacuating a zone only 10 miles out from a similar accident.

"When you look at the claim of Fukushima on the Hudson, it doesn't really add up," Thomas said, noting that the plant is farther inland and farther above sea level than Fukushima.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the group that maintains the nuclear war Doomsday Clock, says nuclear plant operators should have a plan for getting people 50 miles out of harm's way.

"The NRC should ensure that everyone at significant risk from an accident — not just people within the arbitrary 10-mile EPZ (emergency-planning zone) — is protected in the event of a nuclear disaster," the UCS found.  

"Just as the U.S. government advised Americans within 50 miles of Fukushima to evacuate, an accident at a U.S. reactor could similarly require evacuation of people outside the 10 mile EPZ and other protective measures to avoid high radiation exposures. The NRC should therefore require reactor owners to develop emergency plans for a larger area, based on a scientific assessment of the populations at risk for each reactor site."

An NRC spokesperson told Al Jazeera that within 50 miles of the plant, the main role of the NRC was to ensure food was safe from radiation exposure.

"Evacuation plans are viewed by the NRC, but those issues also lie with FEMA. There is a 10-mile evacuation zone. We believe that accidents will unfold slowly and provide adequate time for evacuations necessary," Eliot Brenner, the NRC's director of public affairs.

"Fifty miles is in the planning guidance only insofar as dealing with foodstuffs in distances out to 50 miles. But if there was a serious action, we would recommend any protective measure necessary," he added.

Skeleton crews

The federal government shutdown slashed the 3,900-member staff at the NRC on Oct. 10,  leaving only 300 people to monitor 100 functioning civilian nuclear reactors in the United States. Among those left on duty are 150 nuclear plant inspectors. Most of them live near the plants and conduct daily safety reviews, according to the NRC.

Brenner said one NRC inspector is present at every plant. Some facilities with dubious safety records have two or three inspectors.

The rest of the NRC staffers still on the job will answer internal phone calls or handle security, leaving the agency to operate with skeleton crews, as many other government departments have since the shutdown started. The NRC had been operating on rainy-day funds since Oct. 1

The shutdown has forced the agency to scuttle public meetings in Ohio, Minnesota and Illinois on how to store nuclear waste.

For Indian Point, the shutdown means its relicensing process will likely be on hold until policymakers return to work. In the meantime, the two active reactors at the plant will continue to run, on and off, as they have for nearly 40 years.

But both aging reactors operate not only in close proximity to an ever-expanding metropolitan population but in the long shadow of the Fukushima disaster. And one reactor operates with an expired license, and — as with the safety lapses and questionable evacuation plans — it does so with the NRC's blessing.

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