BUCHANAN, N.Y. -- As American Airlines Flight 11 sped toward the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, it flew within a few miles of another set of twin towers, the domes of the Indian Point nuclear power plant on the banks of the Hudson River.
That fact became chillingly relevant to New Yorkers last month when the federal government issued a warning that terrorists could be targeting a nuclear plant for attack with a hijacked passenger jet. Since then, Indian Point has become the most beleaguered of the nation's 103 nuclear generators.
No other plant has been the focus of more intense scrutiny and repeated protests, and, in a development that could pose a serious threat to the revival of the nation's nuclear power industry, the concerns go beyond traditional anti-nuclear groups.
An array of politicians and public figures have called for the plant to be shut down, and state and local officials are studying proposals to distribute anti-radiation pills to hundreds of thousands of area residents in case of disaster.
"With the no-fly zones [around nuclear plants] . . . and the recent alerts, it's reminded people that nuclear power is a hazard," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which often has criticized nuclear power. "There's not the same kind of debate going on around dams or other kinds of power plants. That makes it harder to make the argument that we should build new ones."
Workers support generator
Indian Point's owner and other supporters have been equally vociferous in defending the plant. Entergy, which owns Indian Point and seven other U.S. nuclear plants, has run full-page ads in local newspapers arguing that the facility is safe. Many of the twin-reactor site's 1,500 workers recently staged a demonstration to emphasize the economic importance of the plant to Buchanan, a blue-collar village of 2,100 people about 35 miles north of New York City.
James Kallstrom, a former FBI assistant director who is in charge of New York's Office of Public Security, has said the plant's reinforced concrete domes could withstand the impact of a commercial jet.
Indian Point bears many similarities to the shuttered Zion nuclear station in north suburban Chicago. Both were built in the early 1970s, making them among the oldest nuclear plants in the country. Both are in densely populated areas; about 300,000 people live within 10 miles of each plant, the highest number near any nuclear facility in the nation. And both have had significant operating problems.
The Zion plant for several years was on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's watch list of troubled plants before the costs of addressing the plant's problems led Commonwealth Edison to shut it down in 1998. That list has since been replaced with a new color-coded evaluation system. One of Indian Point's two reactors now holds the nation's only red rating, the worst possible. The bad marks are the result of a release of radioactive steam two years ago.
Late last month the NRC issued another warning to the plant based on an October evaluation of control room workers. Four of seven control room teams failed the test.
Such internal problems only add to the challenges that Entergy faces in convincing jittery New Yorkers that the plant is safe. Following Sept. 11, the NRC announced that nuclear power plants were not specifically designed to withstand direct attacks by large commercial jetliners. Security was tightened at plants across the nation.
At Indian Point, concrete barriers direct vehicles through a series of turns before they reach the guardhouse, where National Guard troops back up plant security personnel.
Entergy spokesman Larry Gottlieb said that the company has spent an additional $3 million on security since the terrorist attacks and that concerns about the plant's vulnerability to an air attack are exaggerated.
"The site is almost like hitting a pin," he said. "Indian Point is very low to the ground. It's not as easy a target as people think."
Plan flawed, critics say
But if an attack spread a radioactive plume, opponents say the plant's emergency plan is woefully inadequate to deal with the 300,000 people who live inside the 10-mile evacuation zone, much of which takes in suburban Westchester County, where narrow, winding parkways are frequently clogged with traffic.
"Obviously, it's a paper plan," said Stephen Kent, coordinator of the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, which has called for closing the plant permanently. "Anyone who lives in this area will tell you that in the case of a nuclear accident, there's no way you're driving out of this area."
Richard Brodsky, a state legislator, charged recently that the plan was based on outdated census data and failed to consider the consequences of a radioactive release from the plant's storage facility for spent fuel rods. Such facilities have become a focus of concern because they are typically less shielded than reactors. With plans for a permanent storage site at Nevada's Yucca Mountain now decades behind schedule, tons of dangerously radioactive fuel have piled up at the nation's nuclear plants.
Company updating strategy
Gottlieb said Entergy has been working to update the plan since it bought Indian Point.
"The emergency plan has been an evolving, growing document for many years," he said. "The most dangerous game that opponents are playing is that when you go out there and tell people the plan won't work, that's playing with people's lives."
The protests and calls for the plant to be shut down have silenced for the time being talk of a resurgence for nuclear power, which generates about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Last year, as rolling blackouts plunged Californians into darkness, the Bush administration's energy plan foresaw the need for additional nuclear plants to prevent blackouts elsewhere.
Ralph Beedle, of the industry's Nuclear Control Institute, predicts the NRC will likely require extra protection, such as thicker concrete containment structures, on any new nuclear power plant, but he remains confident that new plants eventually will be built.
"The fundamental need for energy has got to be met by some big, baseload units," he said. "And nuclear will play a part in that."
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