By Grace Bennett
The world watched in horror and profound sadness when, on March 11, an earthquake of a near 9.0 magnitude struck near the east coast of Honshu, Japan, 231 miles northeast of Tokyo. Along with the tragic toll in human lives came the devastating news that the quake had triggered a partial meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and that radiation was leaking far, far beyond any 10 mile radius. As the shock of the event ensued, so did attention at home on Indian Point.
With a health and safety theme dominating this issue, IC decided to visit with Legislator Michael Kaplowitz, who represents We asked him to elucidate the ongoing challenges of living in a densely populated area in proximity to a nuclear power plant.
The hour-long interview was sobering. Kaplowitz is chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislator’s Committee on Environment and Energy. He has been a watchdog of Entergy and a witness to the plant’s trials and tribulations for nearly 15 years. He is now unequivocally calling for a 50-mile radius evacuation plan along with conversion to natural gas at the 200-acre Indian Point plant.
“I can tell you and your readers that, unfortunately, if something happens tomorrow out in Indian Point, the existing ten-mile evacuation is not good enough, and in fact might not help the 480,000 people in the region who live within ten miles.” Westchester County has 200,000 residents in the radius.
“I want a 50-mile zone. We need a 50-mile zone because then our emergency service people will start preparing for one. If, at the end of that preparation, you’ve seen that you cannot evacuate, you cannot put a plan together, then one could make the argument that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should yank the licenses of the Indian Point nuclear power plant and within the midst of this population zone, there should not be nuclear plants. He points out that Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who represents New Castle as part of the 18th Congressional District, shares many of his concerns.
“I’m not antinuclear, I am not pronuclear…my role in the Government first, before anything else, is public safety. If you cannot protect people, keep them safe, anything that follows is not worthwhile.”
Kaplowitz indicated that he simply refuses to don blinders. “I’m not going to be a participant in an intellectually dishonest process that potentially harms people. I am an adult and I deal with adult problems with adult solutions.”
“If there is some power plant incident in which radioactive materials would begin traveling, the prevailing winds, by the way, are either down the Hudson to New York City or rake across the East towards Connecticut. A plume of radioactive material would require, necessitate, as many as 20 million Americans, or 8 percent of America, to have to evacuate a 50 mile zone.”
“I’m not a Johnny-come-lately on this issue,” he told Inside Chappaqua with a clear sense of urgency and an unwavering conviction that a 10-mile evacuation plan was nothing short of ridiculous. The Japan scenario made it crystal clear, he said, that radiation leaks would extend far beyond 10 miles.
Kaplowitz, a father of two and a former Cub Scout reminded me at several points of the Boy Scout’s credo: Be Prepared. And, of the need to “Plan, Not Panic.” He bristled recalling minimal or no response scenarios, at various junctures, in interactions with Entergy officials, with officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and at FEMA, who he stated do not appear to share his sense of urgency over a potential disaster here. “A cloak of secrecy” appears to prevail, he added. He reminded IC of millions in taxpayer dollars earmarked toward a plan that won’t work; more than $3 million annually expended by Westchester residents alone.
The very day the interview wrapped up, in light of Osama Bin Laden’s death too, and memories of 9/11 and a plane flying over Indian Point, security was tightened at the Entergy run plants.
Portions of the interview can be found online now at www.insidechappaqua.com, but here are other key highlights.
Long Range Goals
At the outset of the interview, Kaplowitz highlighted that the end goal is a sustainable energy policy: “Indian Point is just one way to generate electricity. The overriding theme going forward is to figure out how we can have a sustainable, earth-friendly, but economically doable energy policy. Traditional fossil fuels including nuclear, plus conservation plus renewable fuels like geothermal…the sun, the wind, and all the rest.. equals a good sustainable energy policy.”
Kaplowitz noted meetings in the last year with Entergy, Riverkeeper (the Westchester-based environment advocacy group which calls for shutting down the plant), emergency service officials and seismologists who have indicated a new, potential earthquake risk .
Trouble with Spent Fuel Rods
“The sum of it all,” he said, was that we need to be focused on 1) the spent fuel rods and, 2) the evacuation plan. Every couple years, he explained, the fuel used inside the reactor becomes spent fuel and is placed into a large Olympic sized pool of water and covered with a corrugated metal roof. “If something bad happens, purposely, by accident, natural disaster, whatever…then this radioactive fuel could potentially be exposed…
This is what happened in Japan, a cautionary tale now for the need, he said, to move that fuel from the pool to dry “bowling pin like” casks, the kind that survived the earthquake in Japan. If something untoward did happen to the spent fuel pools, a triggering of the evacuation plan would be necessary. As a practical matter, this would cover a 50-mile evacuation zone area covering a distance as far as Staten Island, all of Nassau County into Suffolk, up into Central Connecticut, Kingston in the North and the Poconos in the West.
Kaplowitz expressed suspicion of NRC’s “ad hoc” talk, which he said basically means “post incident” and boils down to making it up as we go…“You cannot have plans to evacuate 20 million people on an after the fact, or ad hoc, basis… When one car gets stuck on a Sunday in July on the George Washington Bridge, the entire transportation network system in New York City breaks down.”
Impact of a Shutdown
If Indian Point were to close down, the loss would be between 8 and 12 percent of our energy usage. Some 1100 direct jobs would be affected, said Kaplowitz. To save jobs and produce a safer energy source, he advocates converting the site to a more “environmentally friendly and economically viable” combined cycle natural gas plant.
His idea for the plan, he said, would mirror a similar scenario at a Platteville, Colorado plant in the mid 1990s. “We have an experience of a nuclear power plant that applied for and built a natural gas plant and at the same time closed the nuclear side. They subsequently doubled energy output. I am suggesting such a power plant for Indian Point. The transmission lines already run there…and the community has employees that want to work there.”
He said the amount of power produced could be equal to the current output from Indian Point. Currently, roughly a quarter of our energy output in New York State is derived from nuclear power, and another third from natural gas plants. “It would not change one iota,” he said. “We can keep the 1100 people and many more working for as much as a decade.” That would be as long as it would take to decommission the plant altogether, while it could be as short as two years to build the natural gas plant, he added.
In closing the nuclear fuel side and opening a natural gas side, proper attention would more easily be spent on resolving the safe storage of the spent fuel rods. “The operators would still make its profit, just using different fuels and would have the economic motivation and incentive to guard the spent fuel in casks designed to last 100 years.
The naysayers for natural gas contend there is not enough of it, and there is no way to get it there. Not true, he says. “There’s already a pipeline, actually two natural gas pipe lines, that flow right under it, called the Algonquin line.” Phasing out the dominance of traditional fuels over time and vastly increasing alternative, “greener” solutions, such as solar and geothermal, and promoting conservation are commendable goals that should continued to be pursued. “The most exciting technology that I have seen is geo-thermal where the heat of the earth provides the heating and hot water for entire homes,” he said. “Being realistic, we still need the three prong approach to our energy needs of traditional fuels, plus conservation plus renewable energy sources for a rational energy policy.”
Natural gas along with making us less dependent on foreign oil, “has a tremendous environmental record, is far cleaner than coal, far cleaner than burning oil…and would protect the Hudson River.”
“Right now the nuclear plants take in two billion gallons of water a day. The thermal pollution into the river is destructive; the number of aquatic life killed, tremendous.” Further, the overriding problem is Indian Point’s “taking their garbage (spent fuel) and throwing it out the back…. Well, there’s no place to send it, no, place to put it..It’s like being a home owner, and simply taking the garbage every night and dumping it out of the back window. Eventually, it builds up, and the neighbors say, “hey, are you going to take care of that garbage?”
There’s also the issue of radiation damage and liability. Every single home owner policy in America excludes nuclear incidents from coverage. “So, if something happened here, as in Japan, you would have to leave your New Castle home, maybe you can come back, maybe you can’t, but you would have to continue to pay your mortgage… Hopefully you got out with your life, but in fact, your biggest asset would be impaired.”
Back to the “Hot Zone”
The Japanese experience taught us radiation doesn’t stop at ten miles. Kaplowitz called the current plan “silly,” and “potentially dangerous.” “The western side of New Castle is included in the existing ten mile evacuation plan. The rest of the town is not. If an incident happens during the day, Chappaqua school kids are supposed to be bused to Horace Greeley High School. You can easily see a scenario now in which the radiation would go over that artificial ten mile line…and even affect the high school.”
The plan further asks parents to leave New Castle and head down to Westchester Community College in Valhalla and wait for their kids to be decontaminated at Greeley and then rebused to WCC.
“Well, I mentioned that to my wife–we live in Somers–and she said if something bad happens, as a mom, I would get my kids. And that’s what happened on 9/11, a lot of parents did (defy official instructions)… The plan is fiction, it can’t happen, it’s ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ and it doesn’t take into account real human behavior.”
In addition, the potassium iodide tablets public officials urge we keep handy are just a panacea. “It simply helps you with one cancer–thyroid. It’s good for young people but, for older people, it’s of little or no value,” and has no affect on all the other potential exposures.
If an Earthquake Happened Here
Kaplowitz noted his committee held meetings in the last few months with Entergy, Riverkeeper (the Westchester-based environment advocacy group which calls for shutting down the plant), emergency service officials and seismologists who have uncovered a new potential earthquake risk.
Seismologists have found that an earthquake of a 7.0 magnitude is possible at Indian Point within a geological period extending as long as 3500 years. “But it’s a tremendously long period, so it could happen tomorrow or it could never happen in our life time or not at all. “
The bedrock upon which the plants lie may add to the danger, Kaplowitz said. “It’s very hard to judge, but the problem is our 7.0 is actually more dangerous than an 8 or a 9 on the Richter scale out west. “Because it’s bedrock and it’s solid, the waves will travel through the bedrock. In California, for example, because there are so many fault lines, the power is dissipated and it doesn’t resonate through the rock, so in some ways our lesser Richter scale earthquake could be more damaging to buildings and to facilities than a higher number out there. Meanwhile, the design of Indian Point is to withstand a 5.2 to 5.4 quake.
In addition, the NRC named Indian Point 3 as the most dangerous of the 104 nuclear power plants in this country, including more dangerous than two California plants along the so called Ring of Fire on the Pacific Rim. “The stakes are higher here,” he said.
Kaplowitz cited the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents as other cautionary tales. “I’m not an alarmist; I’m a realist. I have seen a pipe burst in Indian Point in 2000 creating an Alert 2 on a 4-Alert scale. There have been 25 or so critical incidents at nuclear plants around the world, and when something goes wrong at a nuclear plant, the impact is catastrophic. Indian Point is in the wrong place, it couldn’t be built today, so it should not be re-licensed—but we do need to come up with a sustainable energy policy for a non-nuclear Indian Point.”
At the interview’s close, Michael Kaplowitz urged New York State residents concerned about Indian Point to educate themselves on the topic and to also voice their opinion to Governor Andrew Cuomo and their federal representatives. “His father (former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo) closed down Shoreham because he said you couldn’t evacuate from Long Island…now Andrew Cuomo can do the same thing and urge federal officials to de-certify Indian Point’s evacuation plan because we can’t evacuate New York City and the 20 million people surrounding Indian Point.”
Grace Bennett is publisher and editor of Inside Chappaqua. She does worry about Indian Point and would like to see it shut down even if it means darker days and nights.