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ENERGY-US: Critics Pan Nuke Plant Safety as Industry Revival Looms

Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK, Aug 14 2003 (IPS) - A controversial nuclear power plant just 35 kms north of New York City will remain open despite fears that it is an attractive target for sabotage and reports that its evacuation plans are inadequate.

Twenty million people live within a 80-km radius of Indian Point’s reactors in Buchanan, New York State, on the banks of the Hudson River. About 300,000 people live within 16 kms of the plant, the zone most vulnerable to radioactive fallout in the event of an accident or attack.

Tuesday, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said that security drills conducted in July found that Indian Point has a "strong defensive strategy and capability”, and that the private security force stationed there had "successfully protected the plant from repeated mock-adversary attacks".

The news comes as the U.S. nuclear industry appears set for a re-birth. In July, a Senate committee endorsed a bill that provides loan guarantees worth up to 16 billion dollars for six potential new power plants. Three utilities are expected to apply for early site permits in September to reserve spots for the next generation of nuclear reactors.

Opponents of the Indian Point plant, who want it immediately closed, told IPS that the security drills were seriously flawed because they did not include attacks from the river or air. Other than declaring the exercises a success, the NRC has declined to release details of the drills, citing security concerns.

The grassroots movement to close Indian Point grew dramatically following the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001, when the first plane that struck the World Trade Centre flew almost directly over the reactors on its way to New York City.

So far, 45 municipalities and more than 300 elected officials from the three states surrounding Indian Point – New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – have joined the call by a coalition of environmental groups and local residents to close the plant.

A study by Indian Point’s owner, Entergy Nuclear Northeast, found that it would take nine hours and 25 minutes to evacuate the 16-km zone around the plant.

In a radio and television campaign, the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition charges that the plant’s location in such a densely populated region makes it a potential ”weapon of mass destruction".

These concerns were bolstered by a five-month independent analysis led by James Lee Witt, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which determined earlier this year that existing emergency evacuation plans "are not able to protect the public from an unacceptable dose of radiation".

Despite Witt’s critical report, FEMA approved the evacuation plans this month.

Indian Point’s 30-year-old reactors have also undergone six unplanned shutdowns over the last year, triggering an unusual investigation by the NRC into operations at the plant.

More than three shutdowns are considered grounds for concern, the commission said when it announced the probe on Tuesday. Only the NRC has the authority to close the plant, which it has shown no inclination to do.

Those who want Indian Point mothballed say that in the short term, New York could import power from other states and introduce conservation measures similar to California’s during the recent energy crisis there. In the long term, there is a project set for 2006 to bring additional power from upstate New York.

"We also need to invest more in clean energy sources like wind and solar," said Mark Jacobs, co-founder of the Westchester Citizens Awareness Network.

Jacobs noted that although the federal government has spent some 150 billion dollars promoting "alternative" sources over the last few decades, 96 percent of that money has gone to the nuclear industry.

Due to a combination of safety concerns and economics, no new nuclear plants have been built in the United States since 1974.

More than 100 plants are operating countrywide, with an average age of 22 years.

In 1979, a near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate the area. It was the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history and played a large role in turning public opinion against the building of new plants.

In 2002, leaking coolant ate a gaping 15-cm hole near the top of the reactor at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio State. It came within a fraction of a centimetre of breaching the reactor core and possibly setting off a Three Mile Island-like disaster.

Critics note that prior to the accident, the NRC had permitted the plant to skip its mandated year-end inspections.

Still, some experts are predicting a revitalisation of the industry in coming years as the United States struggles to meet growing energy needs without increasing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming..

"A new plant order within the next couple of years would not be surprising," said Gilbert Brown, a professor in the nuclear engineering programme at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

"Everything is aligned for this to happen – a refined licensing process, demand for electricity, high fossil fuel prices, recognition of the fact that nuclear emits no greenhouse gases, excellent operating performance of the existing fleet of plants."

Other believers in nuclear power say it is a matter of political and economic security.

"If we don’t look to nuclear power to provide an increasing share of the nation’s energy needs, we will remain hostage to the economic and political uncertainties associated with a growing dependence on fossil fuels," said Bernard Weinstein, a professor of applied economics at the University of North Texas.

In July, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University released a study recommending nuclear power as a long-term option, but warning that its prospects are limited by four problems: high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental and health effects; potential security risks stemming from nuclear proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.

"I don’t think there will be any new nuclear power plants built in the U.S. until the nuclear waste issue is resolved," said Stanford Levin, an economics professor at Southern Illinois University, who was not associated with the study.

"This is now moving forward, but due to federal government delays, it is a number of years behind schedule."

The Department of Energy has identified a site called Yucca Mountain, in Nevada State, to be the repository of the nation’s nuclear waste, which is currently stored at facilities scattered through 43 states. The plan is adamantly opposed by native groups and others in the area, and is not expected to open until at least 2010.

Nuclear plants are initially licensed for 40 years, and by law are eligible for a 20-year extension.

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