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No Fukushima-on-the-Hudson

Chris Williams Jun 6, 2011

Residents of the area surrounding Indian Point nuclear plan call for the plant to be shut down. PHOTO: NYC IndymediaIt was standing-room-only as some 600 people turned out June 2 for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) annual report on operations at the Indian Point nuclear power plant located on the Hudson River, just 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan.

Reactor Units 2 and 3 have been operating for 36 years, and the plant operator, Entergy, wants to have the plant relicensed to run for another 20 years.

The government body meant to regulate the nuclear industry, the NRC–which then-presidential candidate Barack Obama called a “moribund” agency that was “captive of the industries it regulates” in a 2007 interview–has rubber-stamped every application for relicensing to date.

The NRC has gotten national criticism for its too-cozy relationship with the giant nuclear utilities it is supposed to regulate–after a record of allowing plants to get away with serious safety violations in order to keep them running.

For example, a 2007 leak at the Byron nuclear plant in Illinois was caused by corroded steel pipes. As the New York Times reported:

The plant’s owner, the Exelon Corporation, had long known that corrosion was thinning most of these pipes. But rather than fix them, it repeatedly lowered the minimum thickness it deemed safe. By the time the pipe broke, Exelon had declared that pipe walls just three-hundredths of an inch thick–less than one-tenth the original minimum thickness–would be good enough…

Exelon’s risky decisions occurred under the noses of on-site inspectors from the federal NRC. No documented inspection of the pipes was made by anyone from the NRC for at least eight years preceding the leak, and the agency also failed to notice that Exelon kept lowering the acceptable standard, according to a subsequent investigation by the commission’s inspector general.”

While there was no leak of radiation in this instance, if enough pipes had ruptured, a nuclear disaster less than 100 miles from Chicago could have occurred; for its actions, Exelon received only a mild reprimand from the NRC.

Indian Point has a history of accidents with leaks of radioactive steam and water, faulty siren alarms and two fires since 2007. The New York Daily News revealed recently that Indian Point lacks basic firefighting apparatus such as sprinklers and automatic deluge water sprays for 72 percent of the plant.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told the Daily News, “Indian Point’s ongoing failure to comply with federal fire safety requirements is both reckless and unacceptable.”

The plant sits on two fault lines, and 18 million people live within 50 miles of the plant. Fifty miles was the radius that the NRC told Americans near Fukushima to evacuate to–and yet evacuation plans at Indian Point only extend 10 miles.

A detailed 256-page report commissioned by then-New York Gov. George Pataki and released in 2003 concluded:

It is our conclusion that current radiological response system and capabilities are not adequate to overcome their combined weight and protect the people from an unacceptable dose of radiation in the event of a release from Indian Point.

And Daniel Aldrich, a professor of political science at Purdue University, was quoted in the New York Times saying, “Many scholars have already argued that any evacuation plans shouldn’t be called plans, but rather ‘fantasy documents,'” adding that they are often bureaucratic documents meant to meet policy requirements, not to work in the real world.

The cooling system for the plant has been obsolete for decades–it requires sucking up 2.5 billion gallons of water every day from the Hudson River and dumping the warm water back in. This process kills over 1 billion fish, fry and other river life annually.

Due to this, the environmental NGO Riverkeeper filed a legal action against water quality treatment at the plant, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation revoked the plant’s water quality certification–something that is required for relicensing the plant, unless the NRC grants Entergy a waiver. Indian Point already has hundreds of safety waivers over its lifetime.

The hearing, held near the plant in the town of Cortland Manor in Westchester County, was the last opportunity for the public to offer input before the NRC decides to relicense the 36-year-old plant for another 20 years.

But it was clear that something was different this time, both at the meeting and from talking with some of the veteran local anti-nuclear campaigners who have been fighting to close Indian Point for years–and it’s not just because of the immense turnout in this small, sleepy little town in Westchester County.

In light of the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, and both the German and Swiss governments’ decisions to not only cancel planned new nuclear stations but shut down their nuclear programs completely–a direct result of mass protest–people were both angry and confident.

Two busloads came up from New York City to supplement local activists who have been fighting the plant for decades.

First, the NRC officials, who as a rule don’t keep a formal record of local residents’ input, tried to give their report from the table on stage. The selection of NRC officials, plant managers and scientists were repeatedly heckled by the overwhelmingly anti-nuke crowd, many who were holding handmade signs and red ‘F’ report cards. This led to consternation and disorganization at the front.

The moderator and NRC reps repeatedly tried to control things and come back to their agenda. They even threatened to shut the meeting down.

A short way in, as their slick presentation started coming apart at the seams because the crowd refused to let them rubberstamp yet another year of operation, they were forced to stop and tell everyone that if people wanted more information, they could go to their website. They announced that they would be moving straight to questions and answers.

This, of course, was exactly what the crowd wanted, and there was a huge cheer.

The q-and-a was more like a public haranguing. It was so much fun to see these people in suits–used to having their own way and making potentially life-destroying decisions with impunity–pathetically lost for words as they tried to defend the indefensible against extremely knowledgeable members of the local community, local politicians, community groups and environmental NGOs.

Though several groups are formally for only a moratorium or for making some additional safety changes to Indian Point, almost everybody spoke in favor of immediate shutdown. This is the position of the newly formed New York City-based coalition Shut Down Indian Point Now! whose forthright and unequivocal arguments helped to give confidence to others and sway them to a position of immediate closure.

There was music, singing, theater and dozens of angry political speeches examining all aspects of reactor safety, performance and how New York could obtain its power radiation-free by closing down all the reactors in the state, starting with Indian Point, and switching to clean, safe and reliable renewable alternatives.

A video clip gives a flavor of the boisterous, confident and raucous crowd, and how the agenda of the meeting became dictated from the floor rather than the front.

However, in an effort to be “fair and balanced,” the mainstream news media that put up video of the hearing included three pro-Indian Point speakers and three against. This does a serious disservice to the evening because the three pro-nuke speakers were the only three of the whole evening, whereas dozens of people spoke against.

The NRC people and the plant managers were practically cowering in their seats and couldn’t do anything about it, as they couldn’t answer anyone’s questions satisfactorily. At the beginning, they ignored a call from the floor to have a moment of silence for the courageous workers of Fukushima.

When the issue was re-raised later in the meeting, they were forced into doing a minute’s silence that had the whole room in a dramatic and powerful complete silence. This act highlighted that members of the audience weren’t simply an undisciplined and unruly mob who are against free speech, as some pro-nuclear people tried to paint them–but an angry and frustrated group of people wanting to have their safety concerns and point of view heard.

Of course, raising a nuclear disaster at that point in the meeting was the exact opposite of what the NRC were trying to do, which was dissociate the terrible things going on in Japan from what could happen here in a beautiful part of the Hudson River Valley, home to almost 20 million people.

The meeting went on for more than two-and-a-half hours, with person after person coming up to the microphone and making statements or asking questions. People actually got to experience what real democracy and community participation would look like in decisions that affect them.

NRC operatives were roundly booed when they said they couldn’t meet with local elected officials, but could only “look into it” and take it “under advisement.” They couldn’t even produce a list of their own safety exemptions (in the hundreds at this point). And the officials stirred up further outrage when they didn’t even know how much radioactivity was stored in their spent fuel pools (far in excess of the number stored in all the reactors at Fukushima).

At that point, one of the plant managers told the crowd that it was difficult to know because the plant had been in operation for so many years. Attendees responded with cries of “Exactly!” and “That’s why it needs to be shut down!”

There was a large media presence, including many U.S. TV stations and press, the BBC and a German and Japanese film crew, in addition to NPR. This reinforces how important it is for activists to organize anti-nuclear protests and activities right now.

With many countries either canceling or putting their nuclear plans on hold due to mass protests following what may turn out to be the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Fukushima, there is a real possibility of building a movement in the U.S. that will force the end of the reputed “nuclear renaissance” before it begins.

The only decent position that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken is his opposition to Inian Point relicensing–he has said he wants the plant closed down, particularly after a Union of Concerned Scientists report concluded that it was vulnerable to earthquakes.

People who have been fighting the Indian Point plant for years and have become understandably demoralized were electrified by the atmosphere, the anger and the attendance. As one activist reported, “If you missed this meeting, you missed something that we will look back on as a historic turning point. Welcome, New York City folks, all 70 of you. Your numbers brought a lot of energy and strength to this meeting. The people who spoke were passionate, brilliant and well informed.”

It was an incredible atmosphere. People were angry and confident. Angry because they knew and expected the NRC to approve the plant and that this was endangering their lives because they’ve now witnessed Fukushima. And confident because they had the facts on their side and because they’d seen that mass protest had forced the German and Swiss governments into a humiliating U-turn on nuclear power.

One of the biggest cheers of the night was when the next speaker after the minute of silence said that the best way to honor the workers and people of Fukushima was by building a movement that would close down Indian Point so that there would never be a Fukushima-on-the-Hudson.

People actually now think they might be able to stop the re-licensing. If that were to happen, it would have huge ramifications nationwide due to all the other old, leaking and unsafe plants around the country. So it would be both a huge fight, but also a huge victory–and it would make living in New York City a lot safer.

The next step for our coalition is to organize something in New York City, like another demonstration, to link up with Greenpeace and other organizations, and to try to inject more youth into the movement. We also need to see how we can reach out to student groups and see if we can organize campus teach-ins on nuclear power and why it needs to end.

There are discussions of holding an “Indian Summer” outside the plant, where we set up camp and picket the place–as well as a picket of the Entergy regional offices.

There is already another demonstration planned for June 11 in solidarity with protests being organized in Japan, where demonstrations against nuclear power are escalating as a result of the devastation to people’s live and the ongoing danger from the meltdowns that are still not contained.

This article was originally published on SocialistWorker.org.

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