Can It Happen Here? Japan Crisis Raises Questions Over NY Plant

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty Images
    The Indian Point Energy Center is seen from across the Hudson River.

    The disaster in Japan has raised questions about the safety of people around the world. Here in New York, even as we feel horror over the Japanese calamity and our hearts go out to the afflicted, a question is in the minds of many: can it happen here?

    The evidence is conflicting -- and perplexing.

    Thus, the Indian Point Power Plant, about 40 miles up the Hudson River from New York, have long been a controversial subject. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during his campaign, promised to shut down this facility lest it become an inviting target for terrorists.

    Now, with reports of death and destruction from Japan, attention has been focused again on Indian Point.

    There are conflicting views from scientists. Thus, Lynn Sykes of Columbia notes that "our risk is high."

    In a report with other scientists, he said recently that New York is not as prone to earthquakes as Japan or California but that "earthquakes do happen." And he thinks we should be prepared for such an eventuality.

    Westchester Rep. Nita Lowey, who left a House meeting on Afghanistan to address this issue, told me: "The question is: are we really prepared for a nuclear accident or a terrorist attack? I’ve been calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for some time to find out whether preparations are sufficient. "

    The NRC, she says, has not been forthcoming with an answer. There have been a series of incidents at Indian Point. The plant is seeking to renew its license, "and I have urged them to look it over thoroughly before they agree."

    The congresswoman said the risk to New York City is real.

    But the company that owns Indian Point, Entergy, insists that its top priority is to operate safely. It maintains: "Our personnel receive more job-related training than most other industries" and that "the containment structures at Indian Point were designed with multiple safety systems and components."

    One group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, says "the odds remain low that Indian Point would be disabled as badly as the Japanese nuclear plant." But, says David Lochbaum, director of this organization, "we need to figure out how best to marshal resources and get them to the people who need them."

    New York’s new Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman is suing the NRC for allowing Indian Point and other facilities across the nation, to be used as storage sites for radioactive waste.

    Riverkeeper, the environmental activist group, has just called for a shutdown of Indian Point "until it can be proved that it could withstand a 7.0 magnitude earthquake." This organization demands that an independent scientific study be made to ensure that "the plant is safe and can withstand such an earthquake."

    One skeptic about government’s role in all this is reporter Michael Daly of the NY Daily News. His column today was headlined: "Quaking on Hudson; Regulators Say Indian Point---35 miles away -- Is Safe, But That’s What Japanese Said."

    So the evidence is conflicting and somewhat confusing. It’s clear that no one really knows how vulnerable we are. If we lived by percentages, it appears that a disaster here of Japanese dimensions is highly unlikely. Yet there are nagging questions in the wake of the tragedy in the Far East and another overriding concern: is nuclear power safer than the power generated by oil or coal?

    We live in a world of computers and our government leaders tend to rely on laws of possibility and probability to calculate risks. Somehow, in this case, that doesn’t seem enough.