Coalition Demands Shutdown of Indian Point Reactors

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 9, 2001 (ENS) - The nuclear reactors of the Indian Point power plant should be closed indefinitely, a coalition of environmental and civic groups and elected officials said Thursday. The coalition told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the plant, located just 40 miles north of New York City, poses far too great a risk to the nation's largest city in the event of a terrorist attack.

With a petition filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the coalition called on the agency to order an immediate shutdown of the Indian Point facility and to keep it closed until a full review of the plant's vulnerabilities and safety systems is conducted. Indian Point's two functioning nuclear reactors are located on the Hudson River about 40 miles north of mid-town Manhattan.

Indian Point

Indian Point includes three reactors - Unit 2 (left), Unit 3 (right) and Unit 1 (center, now shut down) (Photo courtesy Entergy)
Citing catastrophic risks to public health and safety and to the world's financial center, the coalition stated that the events of September 11 "clearly demonstrate that the plant's status needs to be reexamined."

While not calling for a permanent shutdown at this stage, the coalition argued that the enormous safety risks Indian Point poses to the region cannot be justified by the plant's limited economic benefit - namely providing a cheap source of power in the summer months when electricity demand is high. The coalition pointed out that with summer over, now might be the best time to close down both Units 2 and 3 and take the opportunity to study the plant's ability to operate safely.

"In light of the September 11th suicide bombing and Indian Point's proximity to the country's most densely populated metropolis, prudence dictates that the plant be shut down until Entergy demonstrates that it can protect the public from a terrorist attack," said Alex Matthiessen, executive director of Riverkeeper, one of the groups leading the campaign.

Entergy Corporation purchased the Indian Point 1 and 2 reactors from Consolidated Edison in September. Indian Point 1 has been shut down and in storage since the early 1970s. Entergy purchased Indian Point 3 from Con Edison in November 2000.

The petitioners are asking the NRC to assess the vulnerability of Indian Point to terrorist attacks, review the adequacy of existing security systems and evacuation plans, and to make recommendations on how to minimize the facility's risks to public safety.


One NRC study found that a catastrophic meltdown of the Indian Point 3 reactor could lead to more than 200,000 deaths (Photo courtesy New York Power Authority)
The coalition also asked the NRC to order an immediate transfer of the plant's highly radioactive spent fuel rods from a wet cooling pool system, where they are now, to a dry cask system - a technology that could significantly increase the security of the spent fuel.

"The plant's vulnerability to a major terrorist attack has never been studied," noted Matthiessen. "Yet we do know the risks are real and grave. Some 20 million Americans live within Indian Point's 50 mile fall out zone that could be irradiated following a meltdown or spent fuel fire. At the time Indian Point 2 was licensed in 1974, one of the Atomic Energy Commission's own officials said that siting a plant so close to New York was 'insane.'"

On September 11, when two hijacked airplanes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, some experts immediately wondered what the effect would have been if the terrorists had targeted a nuclear power plant. While the NRC at first said the heavily shielded containment towers around all reactors would protect against the release of nuclear radioactivity, the agency later changed its tune.

The NRC admitted last month that it "did not specifically contemplate attacks by aircraft such as Boeing 757s or 767s" - the types of planes used to destroy the World Trade Center towers and heavily damage the recently fortified Pentagon.

While the containment buildings that shelter nuclear reactors are able to withstand severe events including hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, "nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes," the agency said in a statement. "Detailed engineering analyses of a large airliner crash have not yet been performed."

Entergy spokesperson Jim Steets said closing the Indian Point plant would not make it safer, and noted that the plant is a far smaller target than the massive, 110 story tall World Trade Center towers. Even a direct hit by a plane would not necessarily lead to a meltdown of the reactors' nuclear fuel, or a widespread release of radiation, Streets said.

If a meltdown did result, the plant has an evacuation plan, as required by the NRC, and that plan accounts for even the worst case scenarios, Streets argued. The federal government reviews such plans every two years, and requires that they include the complete evacuation of all people within a 10 mile radius of the plant within eight to 10 hours after an accident - a proposal not everyone believes is feasible.


Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer who works with Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to revitalizing the Hudson River (Photo courtesy New Hampshire College)
"If the United Airlines jet that traveled down the Hudson Valley en route to the twin towers had instead banked a left turn into one of Indian Point's twin reactors, the resulting disaster would have been even more horrific than the World Trade Center catastrophe," said Robert Kennedy, Jr., chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper. "Given the southerly direction of prevailing winds in the Hudson Valley, a meltdown or major radioactive release at Indian Point could result in death and chronic radiation sickness for thousands if not tens of thousands of the region's citizens and render much of the New York metropolitan area permanently uninhabitable."

Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), noted that simply shutting down the reactors would not substantially reduce the consequences of a radioactive release, were terrorists to successfully penetrate the plants and destroy their essential safety systems. But during a shutdown of just 20 days, Leventhal argued, officials could take steps that would reduce the number of people who might die immediately after a core meltdown and containment breach by 80 percent.

The number of potential long term cancer deaths could be slashed by 50 percent during a brief shutdown, according to a preliminary analysis by NCI.

Leventhal pointed out that removing the fuel from the reactors - something than can be done between six and eight days after shutdown - would allow security forces to focus their protection on the spent fuel pools where this highly radioactive fuel, as well as all fuel previously removed from the reactors, is now stored.

Most of the radiation at Indian Point is stored in spent fuel pools designed as only a temporary repository for the nuclear waste. Spent fuel pools are particularly vulnerable because they lie outside the containment domes and tend to be poorly protected in cement or metal buildings.

In 1982, Congress directed the federal government to identify a centralized site to safely store the nation's spent fuel. A controversial site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is currently the only site under consideration as a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel, but the facility is years away from being ready to accept nuclear wastes.


Paul Leventhal, president of the Washington DC based Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) (Photo courtesy NCI)
"Taking the straightforward step of a temporary reactor shut down to reduce the risks and consequences of a successful terrorist assault will help the 20 million people who live and work in the New York metropolitan area sleep a little easier," said NCI's Leventhal. "It will also allow the plant operator and public officials at all levels to develop and to test defensive measures for the reactor and the spent fuel pool that are sufficient to repel the new terrorist threat."

"That threat, made manifest on September 11, is at least 19 suicidal and sophisticated terrorists attacking from four different directions," noted Leventhal. "Until Indian Point can be protected against that threat, it should not be allowed to operate. Unless Indian Point is shut down, there will not be the financial and political imperative to get the job done right."

Indian Point's two reactors supply 1800 megawatts of power to New York City and Westchester County, enough to power 1.8 million homes. The Pace University Energy Project contends that because there are numerous sources of power around the region, removing Indian Point from the grid would not affect energy reliability, even in the peak summer months.

As to the price of electricity, "During the non-summer months of September through May, an absence of Indian Point power would have a negligible effect on the region's electricity prices," said Dick Ottinger, dean emeritus and professor of law at the Pace Energy Project.

"With the new circumstances we face, there's absolutely no justification for not shutting the reactors down, at least until next summer, and using the time to get a better handle on the risks," Ottinger said.

The coalition believes that a successful attack on the spent fuel pools could lead to a catastrophic fire and a widespread release of radiation. Depending on the size of the fire and wind direction, New York City could be cloaked in radioactive material.

Coalition members pointed to a 1982 NRC study that attempted to estimate the "peak" number of deaths and casualties that would result from a meltdown at Indian Point. Under a meltdown scenario at Indian Point 3 alone, the agency predicted up to 50,000 non-cancer radiation sickness deaths within a year of an accident, up to 14,000 additional deaths over time due to cancer, and up to 167,000 cases of ongoing radiation related health problems.

The group also pointed to another 1982 NRC study on the economic impacts on Westchester County. According to the study, a meltdown at Indian Point 3 would result in a loss of $314 billion, in 1982 dollars, to Westchester's property and commercial interests. Adjusted for inflation and a quadrupling of real estate prices since 1982, the figure could be closer to $2.3 trillion, in 2000 dollars, the coalition said.

Including the effect on New York City and other surrounding counties would result in a figure in the tens of trillions of dollars in economic losses.

The petition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is available at: http://