Nuclear Fools: Indian Point's Generating Poison and Lies

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:26

    Radioactive filth: tritium; iodine 131; strontium 90. "My babies have it in their bones!" the willowy young mother keened from her seat in the amphitheater. The "it" was strontium. "And it's because of low-level radiation emitted from this plant! My babies!" Her body was torqued with frustration.

    The heads of the four guys from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission floated behind their banquet table in the television lights, their faces levitating above their shirtfronts in the glow. They stared into the middle distance, perspiring, their lips pinched up.

    One wonders how often this sort of thing happens?how often a pod of NRC hacks shows up at a scary nuke plant, ready to Reassure the Populace, only to encounter some little gal who shoves into their faces the specters of her kids. Here you go, gentlemen: and so the hacks are left cradling the ideas of tiny bumpkins, and trying to look like they sufficiently care, like politicians stumping through the Ozarks, cooing over the hookwormed scrofulous offspring of the demos?the cradle-scalped children of the unkillable poor?brats who dribble over one's cuffs. Nuke-addled children: kids with weak bones; pustular fetuses, born at 4 pounds in the shadows of reactors, incubating leukemia in their bloodstreams; suffering from Down's syndrome or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, their immune systems ravaged, their thyroid glands coded during embryogenesis to bloom by late adolescence into cancerous flowers. Who needs it? Especially when all you're here to do is lay the calming governmental hand on the foreheads of the populace like the bureaucratic priest invested by Washington that you are, then pack up your briefcase and get the hell back to NRC headquarters down in Rockville, MD.

    "My babies!"

    "I understand your point, miss. Any other questions?"

    At some point during the forum someone's beeper erupted. I probably wasn't the only one whose heart shot from my throat at the sound of the electronic pulse; and, finding itself trapped within a lecture hall's bowels, scurried up a wall to cower behind a light fixture and, thumping like hell, scope the possibilities for escape.

    What's that goddamned beeping?

    I sat up rigid in my chair?for here we were, journalists and citizens at Ground Zero, on the premises of the Indian Point Nuclear Generating Station itself?counting the moments until the poison spread from the reactors and my skull melted. Comfort me, Mother Mary, as I die an irradiated death.

    But it was only somebody's beeper.

    "My babies!"

    "I understand your point, miss."

    Only somebody's beeper.But if you live within the vicinity of an aging, poisonous, embrittled nuclear reactor?and you do, since the frightening Indian Point nuclear power plant, administered by Con Ed and by the New York Power Authority, has for the last three and a half decades been located only 35 miles from Manhattan, on the eastern shore of the Hudson River in an economically depressed, atmospheric little river village called Buchanan?you can be forgiven for overreacting to potential alarms.

    This past Feb. 15, Indian Point 2, one of the facility's two reactors, suffered a structural defect in a piece of equipment known as a steam generator. The result?a significant amount of technical jargon abstracted?was the release into the atmosphere of an unquantified amount of radioactive steam. Locals report that a strong northerly wind blew that night, which would have been great for Hudson River sailors if they'd been out that night, because it would have allowed them to sail on a beam reach across those industrially corrupted waters, a rare pleasure. But it wasn't good if you live in New York City, Westchester County or Rockland County, because it meant that all that filth blew southward, right at you. The event was rated a Level 2?an alert?on the four-level scale used to monitor nuclear accidents.

    The February event was the first time that Level 2's ever been reached at Indian Point. But plant obfuscation and secrecy seems so endemic that it's anyone's guess as to what's been going on there over the course of the decades.

    "Most of the releases from this facility over history haven't been documented," says Scott Cullen of the Long Island-based organization Standing for the Truth About Radiation. "They don't know how much radiation was released from this last incident. There's a ton of incidents like this in the past where they don't know how much was released."

    Adds Joe Mangano, of New York City's Radiation and Public Health Project: "If you go and look back at some of the historical data on how many emissions came from the plant, and how much is in the environment, you can see that stuff is released. You can just see it. You see how much alpha and beta radiation activity there is in the Hudson River at Verplanck, just south of the plant... You can just see it coming out in spurts. These may be routine emissions, they may be accidents. We don't know. But put it this way: they're enough to warrant serious consideration on what they're doing to the public's health."

    Mangano adds that the suburbs surrounding Indian Point witnessed an unexplained spiking upward of the birth defect rate in the late 1980s.

    What's more, the February accident was reported to the public only a full four hours after it occurred, which undercuts the utility's already dubious claims that the area surrounding the plant?New York City's densely populated suburbs?can be evacuated in a timely manner.

    A few facts about Indian Point, for context's sake. Nearly three hundred thousand people live within 10 miles of Indian Point?we're talking about Westchester County here, not some depopulated tundra. Seventeen million people?and unless you're reading this online, you're one of them?live within 50 miles of the reactor, close enough to be mortally affected if a disaster occurs. The Croton Reservoir, which provides a portion of New York City's drinking water, and an even greater portion of the drinking water in the city's northern suburbs, is located less than 10 miles from the plant, and to the east. The plant, moreover, stands?life's funny this way?near an earthquake fault line, a result of the fact that Indian Point's first reactor unit, which received its operating license in 1962, opened before the Atomic Energy Commission developed siting stipulations. (Indian Point 1 was closed for good in 1974.)

    According to the Westchester-based Alliance to Close Indian Point, which cites NRC figures, a worst-case accident at the facility could kill 46,000 people within 17.5 miles of the plant in the first year after the disaster. Two hundred twenty-seven thousand people who reside within 50 miles of the plant?again, that's you?would be "injured." Forty-five thousand cancers would eventually result, and $314,000,000,000 worth of damage would be done to the economy. (The Wall Street bubble finally bursts as traders with contaminated sores expire in their toxic vomit in the gutters of Whitehall St.)

    Finally, a bad enough accident could contaminate 45,000 square miles worth of land in the Tri-State area.

    Anti-Indian Point activists adduce interesting quotations in their advocacy literature:

    Congressman Hamilton Fish Jr.: "The sooner the Indian Point plants are shut down, the better."

    Robert Ryan of the NRC: "I think it is insane to have a three-unit reactor on the Hudson River in Westchester County, 40 miles from Times Square, 20 miles from the Bronx."

    Charles Luce, chairman of the board of Con Ed: "I doubt that we would propose to build Indian Point at that particular location if we were building it today."

    So, on the evening of March 29, concerned citizens and representatives of both Con Ed and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gathered in a lecture amphitheater on the Indian Point campus?the former to learn what was going on, the latter to stumble through the politically embarrassing motions of a "public forum."

    We drove up the hill from a country road in ramshackle Buchanan, past Johnny Rit's bar, which huddles in a shingle house in the exurban wastes near the station's gates (EMERGENCY DRILL?TOMORROW blared a sign) and up through fencing and past the power station guard booth where the uniform waved us up and into the fervent cold of Ground Zero. The plant, bathed in a fluorescent glow, buzzed against the March night on the other side of a huge parking lot. The domed reactors rose against the horizon like mushrooms. We parked our cars and trooped across the pavement toward the facility. There was evident, around the plant, the high level of energy that surrounds projects of power and moment. Men scurried with name tags and helmets and looks of near-angry concentration, working against time clocks and looming imperatives. Like Kafka's protagonist approaching the Law, we felt inferior just approaching the complex?dressed as we were in our civilian rags, clutching tote sacks full of tape recorders and documents with which to confront the lords of this radioactive fiefdom. We wore the comfortable shoes of suburbanites. We were nothing compared to the lean, scurrying men who wore the laminates of the power authority?amazing phrase, that one?around their necks.

    On the phone with Al Donahue, the mayor of Indian Point's home village of Buchanan: "I've been on top of it, more so than the people that are making a lot of comments," said Donahue, who speaks with an appealing rasp. "Because I haven't seen them up in Buchanan since they got something newsworthy to act on. I mean, let's face the facts, these people come out of the woodwork."

    These people being?

    "The politicians that are making a lot of noise out of what happened up here... The majority of them don't represent this area here. They come up. But the thing is, the people in this area, they feel very confident that whatever is done over in Con Edison will be corrected. They have faith... When you see these demonstrations and stuff, you don't see any of the village residents there."

    So people think that Indian Point's a safe facility, and that Con Ed's doing a good job?

    "Yeah, they feel they're doing a good job, sure."

    And presumably Indian Point's a boon to the local economy?

    "Oh, tremendous. Let's face it, they pay over 90 percent of our taxes. The village is what it is because, since they came into our village?I mean, there's been a lot of progress in the village. And the school system?they pay like 15, 16 million dollars a year in school taxes here!"

    And there's never been any evidence of health problems or anything in Buchanan?

    "No," insists Donahue. "I raised five children here. Eleven out of my 13 grandchildren were born here. If there was something, anybody that knows me knows I'd be making a loud noise, complaining, whether there was heavy taxes or not. And the people who work in those plants?I mean, okay sure, they got good jobs. But what, are you going to be a nut, if there's really a danger there, and someone's not going to bring it out in the open and have them correct it? You'd have to be suicidal."

    Presumably there'd be economic consequences if Indian Point closed?

    "Look at all the jobs! I mean, not so much the village, but the whole place. You're talking fifteen, sixteen hundred jobs. And besides, what do you substitute for the electricity and everything else?"

    I guess they'd substitute solar panels or something. Heh heh heh.

    "Riiiight. Hey, I can remember when I was a kid and we had coals and stuff, and we all survived. Coal we picked up on the railroad tracks."

    Are you aware of the public meeting at the plant tonight?

    "Yeah, there's another one," he sighed. "I've been to so many of 'em, my head is spinning. What time, 7 p.m.?"

    Al, I sympathize. I sympathize with the screwed-up economic situation of blue-collar Hudson River villages. But I grew up in one of those, too, roughly halfway between midtown Manhattan and your own village of Buchanan, and the thought of Indian Point upriver from me troubled my sleep?even though we were well out of what some in Westchester call the Death Zone, the area within a 10-mile radius of the plant.

    I used to imagine hopping into a car when the sirens started screaming from afar in the middle of some hot August night?August is for lightning, meteor showers and disasters?and heading south on the thruway at 120 per: my old man shirtless and harried, gunning the Cutlass, WHN buzzing with static, me with my face pressed against the back window, trying to divine the presence of the toxic plume that must have been bearing down from the north.

    I wonder how many kids up there were like me: six years old and already quite neurotic as mysterious klaxons cut the silence, drifting on honeysuckle air through the windows of huge ramshackle old houses, pinning kids to sheets with terror, because who knows what they're hearing? The firehouse horn on Main St., maybe. Or a building alarm on Leroy Ave. Or the sound of the end.

    The day before I'd driven upstate to Indian Point for the public meeting, I'd visited Jay Gould at his Upper West Side apartment. The elderly Gould's an epidemiologist by training. In 1990, after serving on the EPA Science Advisory Board and becoming interested in how epidemiologists seemed reluctant to examine the reasons for variations in cancer rates among different counties across the country, he started the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project. He's the author of numerous books, including 1990's Deadly Deceit: Low-Level Radiation, High-Level Coverup, and last year's equally self-explanatory The Enemy Within: The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors.

    We sat together on a sofa in Gould's apartment, and I told him the name of the Hudson River village in which I'd been born and raised. Gould, a small man who gives the reassuring effect of triumphing by force of will over age's infirmities, stared as if I'd informed him I was about to start a jail sentence.

    "That's a bad place," he told me mournfully, shaking his head. "That's a very bad place."

    "Is it?"

    He nodded, and said: "What can I tell you?"

    According to Gould, breast cancer rates in both Westchester and New York City?and, says, Gould, the New York metropolitan area has the nation's highest concentration of breast-cancer mortality?rose after the Indian Point reactor began operation in 1962. The plant's proximity to the Croton water system seems to have accounted for the rise in the city rate. In 1969, New York City started getting the bulk of its water no longer from Croton, but rather from the Catskills.

    Gould: "Thus, under normal conditions about 90 percent of New York City's water has come, since 1970, from the new distant reservoirs and only 10 percent still flows from the Croton watershed, located just five miles downwind (northeast) of the Indian Point nuclear reactors. New York City's rate stopped rising in the early 1970s and actually began to decline, but with the start-up of two more large reactors at Indian Point in the early 1970s, the Westchester rate rose sharply until it exceeded New York City's."

    It was charming to learn that my native county might, in the fullness of time, reveal itself as a charnel house.

    On the other hand, Gould implied that, the imperatives of power being what they are, Westchester might be a relatively safe place to reside.

    "I can't prove it," Gould said, "but I think the plant operators time the emissions so that they blow away from Westchester. They wait for the wind patterns. Because Westchester's where they live."

    The public forum at the plant was the expected exercise in frustration. Two banquet tables formed a vee at the amphitheater's bottom. At the left table sat four representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, their hands crossed on the table in front of their microphones, their faces opaque.

    At the right table slouched four Con Ed representatives. They resembled popular kids dragged before a school disciplinary board that's inclined to let them off, but that has to go through the motions anyhow, just so the parents of the other kids don't bitch. The Con Ed guys' shoulders hunched, and their cheeks hung, and their backs humped up under the glare of the cameras that lined the top of the amphitheater behind the middle-aged civilians.

    John Groth, who spoke as the leader of the Con Ed group, is a balding, imposing white-haired man with a mustache. He's a saloon-keeper in armbands who waters down his bottles and harbors ambiguous secrets.

    The point man for the NRC was an elderly fellow named Wayne Lanning, director, Division of Reactor Safety, Region I, who wore the pursed, blushing face of former presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Lanning's colleague Ray Lorson was a bureaucrat who looked to be in his late 30s, and who presented the inspection team's findings.

    The meeting was a demonstration of the prerogatives of power, and Lanning's and Lorson's presentations were masterpieces of equivocation. Each criticism of Indian Point was accompanied by an affirmation of the facility's competence and integrity, so that the latter mitigated the force of the former. Thus, for example, Lanning: "Despite the problems with the procedures, equipment and implementation of the emergency response procedures?the team concluded that this event did not have an impact on public health and safety."

    And so on.

    The NRC's critique, moreover, was peppered compulsively by the assertions to the effect that, while something had indeed gone wrong at Indian Point on Feb. 15, it hadn't really gone wrong?and besides, even if it had really gone wrong, it didn't matter, because there couldn't be any danger anyway, given that things at Indian Point aren't, clearly, especially capable of going wrong in the first place, because there's a mechanism and procedure for this sort of thing, and just because the NRC's here telling Con Ed how it can do things better, and telling them what mistakes were made, doesn't mean that things weren't done perfectly enough, or that mistakes were even made in the first place?get it?

    And so on.

    The NRC men's eyes stuck to their notes and the tabletop and the middle distance, even as their faces turned greasy with exertion. They certainly didn't make eye contact with the Con Ed representatives?not that I could see. That testified to a modicum of honor among them.

    Con Ed's responses to the NRC's report were steeped in the cant of middle-management corporate-teamwork self-improvement. One fellow turned what should have been an abject apology into a speech ringing with the self-congratulation of a particularly objectionable Oscar acceptance, or of a middle-management soldier's motivational report about sales-team efficiency and self-actualization at a convention in Boca Raton, before the boys bring their wives down to the terrace for hula-dancing and barbecue:

    "Good evening," he addressed the NRC. "I'd like to acknowledge the tremendous effort that the team put into the review of our emergency preparedness. We concur with your assessment. Your assessment has also allowed us to validate our own self-assessment of the event and identify the items that we have concluded are similar to the items that the team concluded."

    Does the guy know what "concur" means? Notice the meaninglessness of the repetitive language, the product of a manager with a certain self-preservatory cunning, a store of motivational cant and his schoolgirl daughter's thesaurus.

    "You've also helped us to make improvements to our program. The key goal of the emergency preparedness program is to ensure the health and the safety of the public. The events of Feb. 15 and 16 allowed us to demonstrate that we can achieve that goal."

    So he redefined the nuclear accident as a be-all-that-you-can-be career opportunity for suburban jobbers.

    "However, we also identified a number of areas where we can make improvements. I'd also like to acknowledge the dedication and the strong response that we had from the state and the counties of Orange, Rockland, Westchester and Putnam on the night of the event. Part of the assessment of our performance was a peer review team that was comprised of my counterparts from..."

    He was a nuclear meatball?complete with Dale Carnegie hand gestures to help bring his audience in.

    "We met with the officials from our neighboring communities to discuss how we could better meet their needs. What we have is a plan that works."

    And the coup de grace:

    "Our station's goal is nothing less than excellence in our capabilities and response to emergency events to ensure the public's health and safety. Thank you! And I'll turn it over to Mr. Groth."

    Did he expect an ovation? Groth mumbled a bit, and then Principal Lanning wrapped things up:

    "Well, I'm certainly pleased that you've identified some lessons learned already. Lessons are best learned when you identify them yourselves. I'm pleased to hear that you've already implemented corrective actions..."

    And again: "...In fact, there was no detected radiological release offsite... Valuable lessons can be learned to improve performance, and you can learn those lessons without damage to the plant, or without any threat to public health and safety."

    At the close of the meeting the Con Ed men bolted from their chairs and slithered up the auditorium stairs and out of our sight. The meeting was closed. The audience sat there, stunned.

    -But no, I do not believe that there is any plant in the country that has seen a significant health impact... ?Numerous studies...department of health... NRC has what we call a linear threshold you increase the amount it becomes more dangerous to the person, so we try to minimize exposure to people...very concerned... ?Well, you're asking me a question outside our area of expertise here...

    And so on, from the mouths of the gentlemen from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Eventually the crowd rose up and asked spirited questions of the officials, but you never know if you're getting through in situations like this, where the relationship between petitioner and official is one of suppressed violence.

    I'd driven up to northern Westchester early the day of the meeting, and killed time in Indian Point's surrounding villages on the sort of blustery day late March is made for. The village of Buchanan's bordered on the north by the slum town of Peekskill and to the south by Verplanck, that odd little community. Verplanck appears the same as it must have 100 years ago, which is nice. But it's become a melancholy place, because the industry for which it was famous?fishing, for shad but especially the Hudson's glorious sturgeon?has been diminished, thanks mostly to changing economies and the river's contamination.

    Verplanck's located on a peninsula, and on a late-winter afternoon it's as if you've squeezed through a gash in time to get there. Houses huddle in their Dutch stolidity, and children play street hockey on treeless streets as the wind whips from the west. And Peekskill?it's one of the great Hudson River slums, rotting into poverty on its Dutch hills, the houses falling to waste.

    There seems, then, to be a deep cunning to Indian Point's placement. The place stands within a small cluster of poor working-class towns in the midst of a rich county, thereby ensuring that agitation against its existence be translated immediately into the idiom of class tension, as educated middle-class enviro types try to rob their blue-collar fellow citizens of their good Con Ed jobs. The game's been rigged perfectly.

    I drove south along the river on the wrong side of the Peekskill train tracks and followed a dirt track to the winterlorn shore. Peekskill's where the river breaks off north and west, pivoting around Dunderburg Mountain to funnel into the Highlands. And from Peekskill you can see straight up the reach to the Bear Mountain Bridge's balletic expanse in the distance.

    Meanwhile Indian Point buzzed a quarter mile to the left, its huge white noise palpable despite the bellowing of the wind, which blasted up from Haverstraw Bay and over the plant before it hit the crusty shoreline, which gasped under its force. A nuclear wind: and the shore absorbed its assault, weathered the windborne fission particles that blasted at 20 knots, a poison barrage under the soiled clouds racing above the river. I stayed in my rent-a-car with the vents shut. It was late March, and on the other side of the windshield the river teamed with whitecaps under a secret nuclear squall.