Indian Point: Too Close for Comfort?

The nuclear crisis in Japan remains worrisome at best, scary at worst. Perhaps the most frightening development for New Yorkers is the size of the exclusion zone near the site. The United States believes it should be at least 50 miles inland from the stricken reactors, and has refused to allow U.S. military personnel and their families to be any closer.

The Indian Point nuclear reactor in Westchester County is 35 miles from midtown. Imagine the five boroughs and nearby New Jersey counties as part of an exclusion zone should something awful happen at Indian Point.

That’s the nightmare scenario that environmentalists and some elected officials have been thinking about for years. Now, with the catastrophe in Japan, their anxieties take on a new urgency. Governor Cuomo was right to demand a comprehensive review of the plant to determine how to bring its aging technology and infrastructure up to date–if that’s possible.

Nuclear power itself is not the issue at Indian Point. The issue is Indian Point–some 21 million people live in close proximity to the plant, and the two reactors were built at the dawn of the nuclear age. Even a minor accident, never mind a catastrophe, could result in mass evacuations the likes of which this nation has never seen. 

Before he became governor, Mr. Cuomo called for Indian Point’s outright closure. Now, however, as Indian Point begins the process of re-licensing, Mr. Cuomo has to consider the state’s overall energy picture. Simply closing the plant may or may not be a viable option at a time of extreme volatility in the oil-rich Middle East.

There’s no question that Indian Point is old and too close to too many people. While it is not sited on land vulnerable to the kind of natural calamity that has caused such havoc in Japan, there’s no telling what nature has in store for us. If Indian Point is to be part of New York’s future, whether over the short term or the long term, Mr. Cuomo has to be satisfied that it is as safe as possible, and that its owners have in place contingency plans for even the most unlikely scenario. The plant’s operators, Entergy, have acknowledged that regulatory changes are inevitable. As well they should be.

In its agony, Japan has lessons to teach us all about nuclear safety. Let’s hope that regulators, elected officials and Entergy executives continue to absorb those lessons.