How Do You Get To Nuke Plant? With a Paddle

Even as an independent commission to review the safety of New York’s nuclear facilities has put Indian Point back in the news, there are signs that the plant is letting down its guard along the Hudson River. The Coast Guard has sharply reduced its presence in recent months, and a small military contingent that is supposed to maintain a constant patrol outside the plant is sometimes nowhere to be found.

Complaints from local boaters that the river approach to the Westchester facility is often unguarded were confirmed during a recent Observer expedition on the Hudson. The Observer spotted two small security vessels tied up near the plant, with no guards visible along the riverfront, where the plant is located. Boats often stray well within the plant’s “security zone,” as recently demarcated by a line of buoys.

According to top security experts, any lapses on the river could be significant. “Assuming a boat could get close to the plant, it could pose a real threat,” said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-security expert at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

It is unclear what, if any, damage could be done to the plant in a water-borne attack. Security within the facility itself is heavy, and there are barriers around the plant’s perimeter. In addition, when there are New York Naval Militiamen on guard, they’re armed with shotguns and are always quick to redirect boats that stray too close. But analysts say that even occasional lapses of security should be cause for alarm. “It’s a vulnerability that has to be dealt with,” said Edwin Lyman, president of the Nuclear Control Institute. “They may have barriers to prevent vehicles from driving too close to the plant, but not boats, even though it’s possible that the setback of the plant [from the water] is not adequate to protect against a large bomb. To the extent that plant security does not take into account threats from the water, it’s a big oversight.”

A years-long campaign by Indian Point’s opponents to close the facility gained momentum after Sept. 11, when the focus of their ire shifted from the risks of ordinary operational hazards to the suddenly realistic threat of a terrorist attack. The scenarios being played out were catastrophic: A successful attack, it was said, would contaminate everything within a 50-mile radius, killing millions and rendering most of the city uninhabitable for a generation. Measures were quickly taken: A no-fly zone was enforced, the contingent of armed guards in the plant was strengthened, and a Coast Guard cutter was stationed around the clock to protect against a river-borne assault.

Now, the apparent accessibility of the plant from the river has become the latest topic of discussion for locals. “People don’t seem to realize that the whole plant is right on the water,” said Bud Smith, a retired engineer who spends much of his time boating on the Hudson. “All you would need is someone crazy enough, and they could do some serious damage from a boat. I’ve driven by the plant tons of times recently, and no one has ever bothered me, asked where I was going or even looked at me.”

Madeline Wilson, a teacher, had her own close encounter recently when she went paddling on a stretch of the Hudson River near the plant. According to Ms. Wilson, she originally steered well clear of the waters around the plant, but she noticed a number of pleasure boats cruising right near the facility. She and a friend went for a closer look. “We wound up going right past these boats, paddling alongside Indian Point about 20 feet from the shore,” she said. “There was no Coast Guard, no police-nothing.”

Firsthand Look

When The Observer ‘s expedition set out on the river on Aug. 4, there appeared to be nothing other than the buoys to keep the boat from approaching the plant. Two boats were tied to a dock in front of the plant-a dinghy as well as a 12-foot boat that has been used by the Naval Militia, according to accounts from local boaters. No one was in or anywhere near either of the security boats.

A spokesman for Entergy, the company that owns and operates Indian Point, said that it would have been unusual not to have guards on the water near the plant. “We typically have 24/7 coverage in the river provided by the Naval Militia,” said the spokesman, Jim Steets. (The Naval Militia is manned by Navy and Marine reservists and volunteers.)

Mr. Steets also said that there’s a system in place to secure the area, even when no guards are apparent on the river. “There’s a whole procedure when someone encroaches into the security zone,” he said. “There’s a whole process for involving a variety of law enforcement, including the National Guard, the state police, our own security force and others if necessary. And we’ve got barriers and surveillance cameras out there. There isn’t a battleship or a destroyer out on the river ready to gun down anything that comes close, but the level of security is determined by the [federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission], which decides what’s appropriate.”

As for the mystery of the missing guards, Mr. Steets said, “I can’t speak for what happened on that day. Maybe they were not in their boat, but standing by. They’re there all the time-whether they’re on the boat itself, or whether they may come in for shift turnover or to grab a bite to eat, I don’t know about that.”

Chief Warrant Officer Patrick McCoy, speaking from Naval Militia headquarters near Albany, also said that the group maintains a constant presence, but declined to comment directly on any specific instances concerning the contingent at Indian Point.

Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that the plant was secure even when the security contingent was out of sight. “While it may not be obvious to boaters that steps have been taken to fortify the area in front of the water, they have been taken,” he said. He wouldn’t go into more detail because, he said, “that information might be useful to terrorists.”

Mr. Sheehan did acknowledge, however, that the Coast Guard has stepped down its patrols of the waters around Indian Point since the winter. “The Coast Guard said at the time, because they had so many other pressing duties, they asked if they could reduce their presence. As far as we’re concerned, there still is very much a [security] presence.” Mr. Sheehan also said that the N.R.C. was currently conducting a top-to-bottom review of its security measures, including those meant to prevent an attack from the river.

While the N.R.C. has consistently stood by the adequacy of its safety measures, it may not have the final word on the plant’s security. Governor George Pataki, who is under political pressure to show that he’s taking steps to ensure the plant’s safety, made it clear at a recent press conference that he did not have confidence in the N.R.C.’s actions. “Safety must be our top priority, and we cannot wait for the federal government to act,” he said when he announced that a former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency will conduct the independent review of safety measures at New York’s nuclear plants. While security requirements for the plants fall within the portfolio of the N.R.C., Mr. Pataki is in a position to wield enormous influence over the plant’s fate.

Scrutiny of the security is coming from other public officials as well: Both of Mr. Pataki’s Democratic opponents, Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo, have advocated an immediate shutdown of the plant, and Senator Hillary Clinton recently introduced legislation to increase federal involvement with plant security. (The N.R.C. opposed the measure, which failed.)

While the political debate continues over how or even if Indian Point can be made totally secure from attack, the boaters are busy forming their own opinions. “Indian Point is not exactly a defensible position,” said ad executive and avid boater David Warren recently as he motored upriver towards Indian Point.

He pulled his boat up to the edge of the security zone. “There used to be cutters in these waters,” he said. “But it’s like they’re letting their guard down-like they’ve won.” Mr. Warren pointed out at the plant. “Look at this security,” he said. “There’s nobody here!”

Said another boater, Michael Cohen, “What does it matter what kind of security they have inside the fence if boats can go right up to it?

How Do You Get To Nuke Plant? With a Paddle