It’s long past time to close the Indian Point nuclear plant


There are a few places that have really come to symbolize the folly that has been nuclear power in America in the decades since World War II. One of the more famous ones is the San Onofre plant in Southern California, built next to the Pacific Ocean and perilously close to a major fault line, in one of the nation’s more populated corners. What could go wrong? But then, poorly located plants were a hallmark of the early nuclear years. The electricity would be “too cheap to meter,” the public was told, and any health risks were downplayed as minimal.

We’ve repeatedly seen the foolishness of that approach — at Three Mile Island, at Chernobyl, and most recently at Fukushima. Only in hindsight does it seem obvious that the four reactors at the Japanese facility — ravaged in 2011 by an earthquake and then primarily by the massive tsunami that followed and swamped the nuclear facility — were such a bad idea, in such a bad location. Now a once thriving section of the Asian island nation is desolate, and it may remain that way for many years to come. I hope that some day we’re not asking the same questions about New York’s Indian Point.

The three-unit site — including two reactors that are fully operational — came online during the 1960s and early 1970s, when confidence in nuclear safety was at its highest. The plant is located in a beautiful setting along a bend in the Hudson River some 30 miles north of New York City, at the edge of densely populated suburbs. Today, with the main reactors more than four decades old, the siting of the plant at the edge of America’s largest metropolis has terrified some residents.

After Fukushima, where authorities eventually carved out a 50-mile-radius evacuation zone, residents noted that the same-sized area near Indian Point would include almost all of New York City and heavily populated suburbs in Long Island as well as Westchester, covering well more than 10 million people. Purdue University professor Daniel Aldrich told the New York Times in 2011: “Many scholars have already argued that any evacuation plans shouldn’t be called plans, but rather ‘fantasy documents.'”

Then, over the weekend, this happened:

Oil leaked into the Hudson River on Sunday after a transformer fire and explosion a day earlier at the Indian Point nuclear plant north of New York City, and Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was concerned about environmental damage.

Cuomo visited the plant for a briefing on Sunday. The governor, who in the past has called for the plant to be shut down because of its proximity to densely populated New York City, also visited the plant on Saturday.

When the transformer exploded, it released oil into a holding tank, which then overflowed, sending oil onto the ground and into the river, Cuomo told reporters on Sunday after he was briefed by emergency and plant officials.

He said crews were working to contain and clean up the oil spill but it was not clear yet how much oil had been released.

“If you are on site, you see an oil sheen all over the area where the transformer went on fire, and it was a significant area that was covered by oil, foam and water,” Cuomo said.

The article doesn’t really capture the brief moment of panic when news first hit that there had been an explosion and fire and that smoke was wafting over Indian Point. That anxiety gave way to relief, briefly, when officials reported that the reactors had not been affected, which then gave way to dismay over the oil spill. While not on the same scale as a nuclear accident, the Hudson River is a major natural resource that will be damaged to some degree by the release of that much oil.

But more importantly, the weekend accident was a reminder of the advanced age of the Indian Point plant, and that the next time something goes awry there, New Yorkers may not be so lucky. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who did the right thing when he prevented the spread of fracking to the Empire State, has also called for the closure of Indian Point — and hopefully this incident can be a catalyst. America needs to decommission a lot of its nuclear plants, beginning with the ones that are sited too close fault lines, or too close to people. The Indian Point oil spill is also another wake-up call about nuclear power in America.

Read the latest from Reuters on the environmental mishap at Indian Point:

Learn more about my lifelong struggle against radiation poisoning from my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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