Just by coincidence, I got an email this morning from Michael Meeropol at the very minute I was watching a TV news report on an accident at Indian Point nuclear power plant. His email had nothing to do with the accident but it reminded me that I had planned to say a word or two about his daughter Ivy Meeropol’s documentary on Indian Point that I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival last month.
I should mention that this is not one of my favorite film festivals because a few years ago I was prevented from seeing a documentary about herring—of all things—by the festival staff because I had neglected to register for that showing but one later in the week. Even when the publicist intervened to tell them I was okay, I still could not get past them—as if I had a suicide bomb under my shirt or something.
There’s a certain irony, of course, in Ivy Meeropol making such a film since her grandparents were none other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the subject of her first documentary in 2004. As the “atom spies”, they were charged with giving Russia “the secret” of how to make a nuclear weapon. For the longest time the left upheld the analysis of Walter and Miriam Schneir that they were wrongly accused. When it was revealed that Julius was passing information to the Soviets, the left had a feeling of being had. I always felt that the best tack would have been for them to admit it and defend it as necessary for the survival of the USSR. My strong suspicion is that if the Soviets lacked such a self-defense, WWIII would have taken place in the mid-50s with genocidal results.
As for the accident, a representative from Entergy, the vultures who own the plant, told viewers that the transformer fire took place in a building separate from the reactor and posed no danger (except of course, for the toxins that poured into the air and the water). CNN’s report was par for the course:
A transformer failure at the Indian Point nuclear power plant caused an explosion and fire at the facility Saturday evening, sending billows of black smoke into the air near Buchanan, New York.
The fire broke out on the non-nuclear side of the plant, about 200 yards away from the reactor building, according to Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi.
“The fire is out and the plant is safe and stable,” Nappi said. Federal officials said one reactor unit automatically shut down.
Meeropol’s film had unprecedented access. Not only does she take you through a guided tour of the innards of Indian Point, she was also able to take her crew through the Fukushima wreckage in what was obviously a risk to her health and safety. In addition, she managed to gain the confidence of the guy at Indian Point who was responsible for maintaining safety in the same fashion as Jack Lemmon in “China Syndrome”. Since the guy rides a motorcycle to work rather than a Prius, that struck me as less than reassuring.
The star of the movie is Gregory Jaczko, who was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Corey Stoll who played the Congressman was used as a tool by Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”. While not quite an anti-nuclear convert after the fashion of Jack Lemmon’s character, Jaczko became convinced after Fukushima that tighter safety standards were required in the industry. For this, the NRC decided to dump him but not on the basis of his call for safer procedures but for alleged misconduct as a manager. After he was dismissed, they were able to document that none of the charges such as verbal abuse to underlings had any merit. It was simply the case that the industry, including Entergy, did not want to pony up the extra money to make the plants safer.
There is some question whether any amount of money could make Indian Point safer. By everybody’s admission, the plant was already obsolete in the 1970s so not only were power transformers ready to blow, so was just about everything else in the plant. The New York Daily News, a rightwing tabloid, reported four years ago:
Federal inspectors found “near-miss” accidents at Indian Point on the Hudson and 13 other U.S. nuclear power plants last year, a watchdog group charged on Thursday.
A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission data, claimed that “many of these significant events occurred because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems.”
In the inspection of Indian Point about 25 miles from New York City, NRC auditors found that “the liner of a refueling cavity at Unit 2 has been leaking since at least 1993.”
The USC report charged that “By allowing this reactor to continue operating with equipment that cannot perform its only safety function, the NRC is putting people living around Indian Point at elevated and undue risk.”
In addition to interviewing industry officials and Indian Point personnel, Meeropol put the spotlight on an activist named Marilyn Elie, a retired schoolteacher who lived only a few miles from Indian Point. Understandably, she and other local folk would worry about a potential Chernobyl in their midst. For that matter, given the plant’s proximity to New York City, all of us should get involved with shutting the plant down since a catastrophe just thirty-five miles from Manhattan would be a threat to our lives as well.
As someone with a longstanding concern about saltwater and freshwater life, I was particularly outraged by the plant’s cooling method, which is to suck in water from the Hudson to cool the reactors and then cycle it back out to the river at many degrees higher than is safe for fish. In fact, this is the Achilles Heel of the plant. It has been denied a license renewal because the water cooling technology has been deemed inimical to the river’s health and safety—leaving aside the whole question of a Fukushima type meltdown. Given the likelihood that Entergy will not spend the money to replace the cooling system and that Governor Cuomo is opposed to it in toto, there is a good chance that the reactor will be history after 2015. Let’s hope that Meeropol’s documentary gets shown on PBS, where it will scare the bejeezus out of New Yorkers who wouldn’t cotton to the idea of a Fukushima type meltdown ruining their runs in Central Park and Sunday brunches at outdoor tables.
Speaking of which, the film took us on a tour into the area where spent fuel rods are kept. This, to put it as gingerly as possible, is a disaster waiting to happen. Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter of longstanding and hardly a Marxist “catastrophist”, informed his readers of the risk:
The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima reactors has set off calls to close nuclear power plants around the world. But closing reactors alone would do nothing to address what caused the real damage in Japan—the spent fuel rods that are supposed to be cooling in pools. When three of the seven pools were damaged, and in one case entirely drained, by the tsunami, the spent rods began emitting high levels of radiation.
The United States has about 100 such spent fuel pools. I visited one a few years ago at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which sits up the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York. Indian Point is back in the news because it operates a mere 35 miles outside New York City. More than 20 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the plant. Getting out in the case of a disaster would be a nightmare.
Getting in wasn’t easy either. But after taking a course called “radiation training,” undergoing a “dose assessment” (to be measured against my readings afterward, which showed less exposure than to an X-ray) and passing a written test on how to handle myself in a confined space, I was finally allowed to enter the facility. Clad in the jumpsuit, helmet, goggles, and booties made famous by Homer Simpson, I expected to be transfixed by the fully operating core of the reactor just a few feet in front of me.
Instead it was the 38-foot-deep pools, with the spent rods lying at the bottom, that scared me. Unlike the reactor, the pools aren’t “hardened targets” protected from earthquakes or terrorists by a concrete containment dome. At least at Indian Point, the pools lie in bedrock. In the Fukushima facility, and at many American plants, they are above ground, with roofs not much thicker than those at your local swim meet.
I learned that day of a process called “dry cask storage” that seems to offer a safer alternative. In dry casking, a technology that dates to the 1980s but has only been adopted in recent years, the rods are housed outdoors in storage pads 3 feet thick and 100 feet by 200 feet wide. While this sounds promising, it turns out dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.
Dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.
At Indian Point, authorities only began dry casking in 2008 because the pools were so crowded that there wasn’t room for newly spent rods coming out of the reactor. According to Entergy, the company that owns the Indian Point plant, “reconfiguration of the spent fuel pool is not part of the dry cask storage project.” In other words, the pools won’t be drained any time soon, at least not intentionally.
Finally, I recommend that you acquaint yourself with the Riverkeeper website, a group that has been spearheading opposition to Indian Point and whose members are given a platform in the documentary. I especially urge a look at their “Ten Reasons to Close Indian Point” that should gain the widest attention alongside Ivy Meeropol’s documentary.