reactor known as Indian Point 2 sits beside the Hudson River about
30 miles north of New York City. It has the worst safety rating of
all 103 nuclear reactors in the United States. And of all the U.S.
reactors, it's located in the most densely populated region.
That is not a good combination of circumstances.
Concern over the plant's continuing safety problems has
heightened since Sept. 11. Increasing numbers of residents and
elected officials are coming to the conclusion that the possibility
of a terrorist attack or a catastrophic accident at Indian Point is
a risk that is not worth taking. They believe it is time for the
Indian Point complex with its two reactors — Indian Point 2 and the
less troublesome Indian Point 3 — to close.
In February 2000 an accident at Indian Point 2 resulted in the
discharge of 20,000 gallons of radioactive water. Officials said the
radiation released was not a threat to public health, but the
reactor was closed for nearly a year. Last December, four of seven
control room crews failed to pass their annual qualification exams.
That same month the reactor shut down automatically after an
electrical connection to the plant's turbine switched off
unexpectedly. Leaks, malfunctions, human errors — it's always
something at Indian Point.
Casualties from a worst-case scenario at the complex would dwarf
those of the attack on the World Trade Center. A 1982 study
commissioned by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that a
meltdown at Indian Point 2 could cause 46,000 fatalities and 141,000
injuries in the short term. The potential casualties from a meltdown
at Indian Point 3 were even worse. Long-term, the deaths from cancer
resulting from an Indian Point catastrophe would likely be
The casualty estimates are conservative. The population in the
region is greater now, and evacuation plans are pathetically
I called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week to ask about
the safety ratings at Indian Point 2. A spokeswoman, Diane Screnci,
said the commission did not rank plants. But it does conduct
inspections and issue findings that are graded using the colors
green, white, yellow and red. Green is the safest category and red
the least safe.
Indian Point 2 is "currently the only plant with a red finding,"
Ms. Screnci said. She characterized the red finding as highly
significant and said Indian Point 2 continued to receive "increased
A serious accident or even a terrorist attack is no guarantee
that the worst will happen. But we all learned as the World Trade
Center vanished on Sept. 11 that the worst can happen.
The vulnerability of nuclear power plants is made frighteningly
clear when we consider that American Airlines Flight 11, as it flew
south from Boston toward Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, passed almost
directly over the Indian Point complex. Then consider that President
Bush reported in his State of the Union Message that Americans in
Afghanistan had found diagrams of U.S. nuclear power plants, and
that the nation's 103 nuclear reactors were never designed to
withstand the impact of a commercial airliner.
Everyone within at least a 50-mile radius would be in danger if
something terrible happened at Indian Point. That 50-mile radius
contains more than 7 percent of the entire population of the United
States — 20 million people. It includes all of New York City; the
suburban New York counties of Westchester, Orange, Rockland and
Putnam; Bergen County in New Jersey; and most of Fairfield County in
Connecticut. There is no other nuclear plant in the country with
anything close to Indian Point's potential for disaster.
Its chronic safety issues made Indian Point problematic before
Sept. 11. Accidents happen. But since the attack on the World Trade
Center, and with the awful proliferation of suicide bombers in the
Middle East, the unthinkable is no longer unthinkable. Residents in
the vast potential danger zone surrounding Indian Point have little
trouble imagining an airliner diving toward the complex, or
terrorists on the ground attempting to sabotage it.
Anxiety is very high, and opposition to the plant by residents
and elected officials is intensifying. It may not be long before a
consensus is reached that Indian Point is a problem the region can