Chernobyl-on-Hudson?

Structural engineer Nausherwan Hasan used to talk about the

sturdiness of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester, 30 miles

north of Manhattan, and took pride over the years as the facility churned out

safe, relatively clean power for much of metropolitan New York. Mr. Hasan knows

about these things: He helped build Indian Point, doing repairs and

reconstruction on the oldest parts of the facility in the late 1980’s.

But things are different now. These days, Mr. Hasan worries about

the storage of nuclear waste at the facility; Indian Point, he says, was never

designed to hold such waste for long periods of time. He’s also concerned about

the reports he’s heard about corrosion in one of the reactors’

domes. And Mr. Hasan, who had an office in the World Trade Center until Sept.

11, doesn’t

want to think about what could happen in the event of a similar attack at

Indian Point.

“The plants have a lot of safeguards to protect them,” he

told The Observer . “But

then again, nobody perceived that we could be shot at from the air, and it

happened. The plants are not designed for that kind of direct hit. Things like

that disturb you.”

Mr. Hasan’s sentiments help to explain the groundswell of opposition to

Indian Point’s continued operation. For years, the plant’s

critics were the usual suspects: no-nukes activists, assorted dissident

scientists and the odd not-in-my-backyard local public official. After the

cataclysmic events of Sept. 11, however, the mainstream has joined the fringe,

united in fear of a nuclear catastrophe. It’s no longer just the no-nukes crowd that’s

haunted by visions of ­horrendous carnage and the nation’s largest city being

rendered uninhabitable for generations.

“I always thought there were enough safeguards built into this

thing to withstand any accident,” said one former Con Edison executive who

worked at Indian Point. “But now it’s different. You’re talking about the possibility of planes

flying into this thing, and there would be no way to protect the whole plant

against an attack like that. What are you going to do, put up some kind of

invisible force field?”

The rising anxiety level has not been especially surprising given

the dire scenarios that were hashed out following Sept. 11. (A worst-case

terrorist attack, according to reports, would result in 50,000 deaths in the

first year, unquenchable radioactive fires and widespread contamination that

would leave lower Westchester County and the five boroughs hopelessly poisoned

by radioactivity.) More recently, the issue has been taken up in the city

media, making the front page of the Daily

News and attracting the attention of The Times ‘

Bob Herbert.

Even before the World Trade Center attack, the 36-year-old

facility had its share of safety concerns. Two years ago, when the plant was

still owned and run by Con Edison, one of two working reactors was given the

lowest possible safety rating by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission because

of “ongoing

substantive” problems with plant operations. It continues to be ranked as

one of the worst-operated plants in the country. And it’s had to be shut down

twice since 2000 because of operational mishaps.

Under the Entergy Corporation-a company with lots of experience running

nuclear plants, but which had the unbelievably bad luck to take over Indian

Point on Sept. 5, 2001-public fears have grown. Residents in Westchester and Rockland

counties have heaped scorn on a number of the plant’s emergency measures in

the case of a meltdown, most notably an “evacuation plan” that seems about as

realistic as taking cover under a desk in the event of a nuclear attack. The

system of storing “spent” fuel-deep pools containing radioactive uranium rods-has been

widely criticized as being a potential target for suicide hijackers. And there

have been fresh concerns about the plant’s security personnel after a recent

incident, in which local police had to be called when one security guard

allegedly pulled his gun on a colleague over a personal dispute. (The guard has

since been fired.)

Then there’s the larger question of site security: With the F.B.I., C.I.A.,

New York State Police, U.S. Office of Homeland Security, Coast Guard and

Entergy’s

private security force all contributing to site security, who is ­ultimately

responsible for defending the plant in an emergency?

“I guess ultimately the N.R.C. is, though it’s not

as simple a question as it used to be,” said Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy.

“Primarily,

it’s

Entergy’s

responsibility.”

Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory

Commission, was asked the same question. “[Entergy] bears the ultimate

responsibility,” he said. “We have primary responsibility.”

Then he clarified the matter. “It would depend on what type of an attack,” Mr.

Sheehan said. “If we’re talking about two intruders on foot, it’s

pretty obvious that’s the plant security force’s responsibility. If we’re

talking about a 757 hitting the plant, there’s the question of who bears

responsibility.”

Indeed, while Entergy may be equipped to deal with intruders,

there isn’t

much the company-or anybody else-can do about the airspace over Indian

Point. After Sept. 11, planes were banned from flying near the plant, but that

ban has been lifted. “That barely existed in the first place,” Mr. Steets said, before

noting, “The

Department of Defense is, you know, the best judge of what’s

appropriate.”

Lt. Col. Michael Humm, a spokesman for the Department of Defense,

referred questions about the plant to “the security folks at Indian Point for the

answers that you’re looking for.”

Back to Mr. Steets: “We have a well-armed, well-trained

security force,” he said. “These are not your movie-theater, shopping-plaza security; these

are well armed and well trained.” And, he said, “the National Guard is

on-site and the Coast Guard is patrolling the river.”

Whatever difficulties exist, they are unlikely to lead to a

closure of Indian Point anytime soon, for a number of reasons. For one,

opponents can express all the displeasure they want, but any decision to

decommission would ultimately have to be made by the N.R.C.’s

board, an appointed body that has defended the plant’s safety.

For another, some of the state’s most influential public officials, whose

support would be necessary to close the plant, are keeping their distance from

calls to shut it down. Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer have

expressed concern over the plant’s safety, as has Governor George Pataki,

who stands to have the most influence over what would ultimately amount to the

Bush administration’s decision. But none has shown much appetite for actually

closing Indian Point, perhaps because it would cut off one of the region’s

main sources of energy and a major employer.

Lights Out?

What impact any closure would have on New York’s

energy supply is a matter of dispute. The plant’s operators say that closing down Indian

Point would result in massive price increases for New York consumers and a

greatly increased likelihood of blackouts. They point to Con Edison’s

shutdown of one of Indian Point’s reactors in the summer of 2000, which

helped drive price increases of 25 percent.

As for the plant’s safety, Indian Point defenders also say

that safety issues have been exaggerated in order to frighten people about the

facility. “A lot of people are being misled,” said Mr. Steets, the Entergy spokesman. “It’s

important to us to get our message out, which is that the plants are safe,

secure and vital.”

Some of the officials charged with defending the facility say

that closing it wouldn’t necessarily even improve safety in the short term. “People

want to shut the plant down, but it would only make a minimal impact on

security,”

said James Kallstrom, Governor Pataki’s director of the Office of Public

Security. “We’d have to live with the [radioactive] fuel rods for five years

anyway.” 

Environmental activists, on the other hand, contend that the

impact of an immediate closure of Indian Point would be safe and manageable. “We

don’t

believe that shutting it down would cause any brownouts or blackouts, and any

increase in price that would occur would be mitigated,” said Ashok Gupta at the

National Resource Defense Council. “[The plant owners] are the ones engaging

in scare tactics to take advantage of people: ‘It’s either this or freezing in the dark.’

There are other options.” Mr. Gupta said that with new, conventionally fired power

plants, energy conservation measures and heavier reliance on renewable

resources, New York could make up the energy lost by closing Indian Point.

Other Indian Point opponents suggest that the public would

support a shutdown even if it did mean enduring hardships. “I

think if people knew what the risks were here, they’d eat by candlelight if

they had to,” said Robert Kennedy Jr. of Riverkeeper, an environmental group

that has been organizing efforts to close Indian Point.

Whether people are actually willing to make those sorts of

sacrifices-or whether they’re are even aware of them-an

increasing number of Indian Point critics seem prepared to deal with the

consequences in exchange for peace of mind.

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this issue is really taking off,” said

Representative Elliot Engel, a Democrat whose district takes in parts of the

Bronx and Westchester. “We know that 9/11 is probably not the last terrorist attack in

this country, and Indian Point is an accident waiting to happen anyway. I’m not

an anti-nuclear person, but as long as Indian Point has the potential to be-God

forbid-the

biggest disaster ever, we should shut it down.”