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A Slight Chance of Meltdown

Andrew Cuomo finds running a nuclear-power plant so close to New York City too terrifying to allow. And so the owners of Indian Point are on a mission to make any other source of power sound even more terrifying.

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Interior water tanks.  

At Indian Point Energy Center, the 49-year-old nuclear-power plant 25 miles north of New York City, they talk a lot about safety—safety with regard to terrorism, to floods, to power outages and meteorological events. Most of the talk revolves around keeping the reactors cooled, and protecting what’s known as the spent-fuel pool. This is important, because it takes a few thousand years for radioactivity to decay to a point where it is no longer hazardous. When I show up on a recent weekday, guards with semi-automatic weapons greet me at the top of the hill overlooking the plant, and after a background check, I pass through a recently constructed concrete barrier that Joe Pollock, site vice-president of Indian Point, refers to as his Great Wall of China.

Pollock is responsible for the overall operation of Reactor Units 2 and 3, as well as the maintenance of Unit 1, which was shut down in 1974. (According to a recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission report, low levels of strontium-90 and tritium “appear to be leaking” from Unit 1’s spent-fuel building.) Pollock has worked at nuclear-power plants for over 30 years and comes across as a good-natured guy who absolutely means what he says. He has spent a lot of time this year defending nuclear power. In addition to the tsunami in Fukushima, there was the large East Coast earthquake that shook a nuclear-power plant in Virginia, as well as the tenth anniversary of September 11 (the terrorists had reportedly discussed Indian Point as a potential target). Pollock lives with his wife a few minutes’ drive from the plant, and at the barbecues and around town this summer he frequently found himself discussing disaster preparedness. “You talk to a commercial-airline pilot, they’ll say it’s almost impossible to spot us,” he tells me. The level of structural malfunction at the Fukushima plant, he explains, would not happen here. “They had a radiological release where all three barriers were defeated.”

As Pollock sends me into the plant, I am introduced to a team of friendly nuclear-power-plant workers who know well that the current governor of New York wants to shut them down. “There are a lot of people who don’t like us right now,” says Robert Cranker, a senior technician. “But they don’t understand nuclear power. I don’t blame them. I always tell people that it’s like if I learned everything I know about fire from the Great Chicago Fire, then I would be scared. With nuclear, people know everything they know from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

I am security-checked through way stations and I.D.-swiped through doors. Soon we pass a bulletproof-glass window that offers a view of one plant’s control room, which resembles the set of a boring 1979 industrial film: crisp analog dials, a roomy-submarine feel. Now wearing earplugs and hard hats, we pass the giant, bone-rumblingly loud turbines that date from the Carter administration. Next door, 547-­degree heat from the reactor’s core is heating water to make steam that turns the generator that produces electrons that shoot down transmission cables and underground substations and through the street and into your outlet that slips them into the lithium-ion battery that powers your iPhone. The number of electrons firing out—2,000 megawatts, enough to power 2 million homes—brings the plant great respect among the power-planners in New York State.

Finally, after sitting down with a ­radiation-safety technician to discuss the amount of radiation one might safely be exposed to—in this particular case, .2 millirems per hour—I am permitted to view the spent-fuel container, the 23-foot deep, glowing pool containing several decades’ worth of used uranium (the glow is just from the lights used for the monitoring cameras). Visitors are cautioned not to stand directly over the pool, to limit exposure. And so for about five minutes I stand in the eerie generator-muffled calm of the square, concrete room, mesmerized, until my personal radiation detector ticks up to .2, at which point I carefully retrace my steps out the building, passing knobs and valves, mindful of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow accidentally kicking the lamp.

It often takes a disaster, or the threat of one, anyway, to get people thinking about their power—otherwise they just plug in or charge it overnight, without giving a second thought to where those electrons are born. The last time New Yorkers were focused on Indian Point was in the fear-drenched aftermath of September 11. (You may recall Rudy Giuliani, in some of his first work at Giuliani Partners, vouching for Indian Point’s security with his then-associate Bernie Kerik.) Well, Giuliani’s back—starring in new advertisements, paid for by Entergy, the Louisiana-based company that owns Indian Point, in which he stands before a green screen and accentuates the energy needs of “the greatest city on Earth.” “You have the right to know the facts about this important source of electricity,” he tells us. “All of us have a right to know why Indian Point is right for New York.”


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