The crisis in Japan has reignited intense debate among lawmakers about the safety of U.S. nuclear-power plants; nowhere more so than at Indian Point, where two aging reactors are 24 miles north of New York City.
"We are using up our reservoir of good luck," said Richard Brodsky, a former New York State legislator who last week lost a lawsuit on the level of insulation required around electrical cables at Indian Point. "The chances of an accident at Indian Point are small but the consequences are so dramatic."
An analysis by the Daily Beast today ranked reactors at the Buchanan, N.Y., plant as the most dangerous among 65 U.S. nuclear facilities, based on risk of natural disaster, safety performance and the surrounding population.
Also ranking high on the list were San Onofre in San Clemente, Calif., Limerick in Limerick, Pa., Dresden in Morris, Ill., and Diablo Canyon in Avila, Calif.
Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, rejected the list, saying the NRC doesn't do risk rankings. "Currently, the operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. remain safe, with no need for immediate action," she said by e-mail.
Screnci said that even though "overall seismic risk estimates remain small," the NRC has identified 27 reactors "where we need to complete additional analysis. That's being done. The Indian Point Units are two of those."
Politicians are not satisfied with the prospect of additional analysis. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Wednesday called for the plant to be closed, pointing out that Reactor 3 at Indian Point sits on the Ramapo Fault.
Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat whose district includes parts of New York City and Westchester County, pointed out that the planes that attacked the World Trade Center flew over Indian Point and said its license should not be renewed.
But another local congresswoman, Rep. Nan Hayworth, a Republican, says the plant should stay online. "It is a crucial source of carbon-clean power," she said.
And having toured the plant and spoken to people in the community, she added, "I have not heard anything that makes me think Indian Point's continuing operation poses a threat."
"The plant is built to withstand an earthquake far worse than this area has ever experienced," said Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for Indian Point.
The Committee for Concerned Scientists has raised issues this week about Indian Point and other U.S. reactors. In testimony before the Senate Wednesday, Dr. Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist in the Global Security Program, said the U.S. nuclear industry failed to learn any lessons from the disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine.
"The NRC and the industry cannot hide this time behind the, 'It can't happen here' excuse. We have 23 plants of the same design. We have plants that are just as old. ... We have suffered a devastating terrorist air attack against our infrastructure for which we were completely unprepared," he said of 9/11.
In a news briefing today, Lyman said it was "utterly unrealistic" to expect that an evacuation within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point could occur successfully.
The NRC told a Senate panel Wednesday that it would order such an evacuation if the United States experienced a catastrophe on the level of the one taking place at the Fukushima plant in Japan.
The United States requires its plants to have a 10-mile-radius evacuation plan in place, according to Melanie Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.
"We feel it's adequate to protect the public," she said. She added that plants, including Indian Point, were safe before 9/11 and are even safer now, thanks to concrete barriers and additional security personnel.
As for natural disasters, Lyons said, "Just because it happens over there, we hope it doesn't happen over here."
She said the industry and the NRC would be looking at plants that use the same GE Boiling Water Reactor design as Fukushima, including the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts and Dresden 2 and 3 in Illinois.
Brodsky is not reassured about the regulatory agency's scrutiny. "The NRC is to nuclear power today what the SEC was to Wall Street three years ago," he said.
The next crisis, at Indian Point or elsewhere, might not follow the pattern of Japan, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island but, he said, "It's going to come out of the blue."