Could what happened in Fukushima happen 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of New York City?
That’s what many activists and former nuclear regulators fear for the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant that has operated in Westchester County for more than four decades. The plant provides a good chunk of the energy needs for the surrounding area, but it has come under fire in recent years for safety and environmental concerns, including its warming of the Hudson River and a recent case of bolts missing in one of its reactors. The plant’s two working reactor units are currently operating on expired licenses, with the state of New York having denied parent company Entergy’s water permits due to suspected violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused catastrophic damage to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and surrounding area, the safety of nuclear energy as a whole has come under even greater scrutiny.
In the new documentary Indian Point, currently in select theaters, filmmaker Ivy Meeropol uses the plant to get into both sides of the nuclear debate. Meeropol, who is also a director on the upcoming second season of the National Geographic Channel series Years of Living Dangerously, tours both Indian Point and Fukushima. She profiles plant workers and executives (Entergy cooperated with the film) along with antinuclear activists, environmental nonprofits, and former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Gregory Jaczko.
Though she says seeing the inner workings of the plant was “reassuring,” Meeropol still found many disturbing details. “All these people who work in a nuclear power plant, basically their main job is to make sure nothing goes terribly wrong,” she says. (See photos from Fukushima’s eerie ghost towns.)
Meeropol spoke to National Geographic about her journey into the central reactor of the nuclear debate, why nuclear power puts aquatic wildlife in danger, and just how scared New Yorkers should be about Indian Point.
Describe the experience you had of stepping into Indian Point for the first time with your camera.
The first time, the owners of Indian Point were only allowing me to film a typical tour that school groups can go on, or politicians. It’s a very controlled situation, where they bring you just to a few parts of the plant—you do not go to the radioactive side. That wasn’t really what I was looking for. As a documentary filmmaker, you want to go deeper, and you want to access areas that not everyone can typically see.
After that I kept pushing, calling the communications department, saying, “What I really want is for you to introduce me to someone who has worked there for a long time.” I was able to convince them that their side never gets seen. There are lots of films about nuclear power, and they’re all about trying to shut them down.
Personally, I found myself kind of giddy. It was a strange experience, like, “I can’t believe I’m so excited to go into a nuclear power plant.”
What were the most surprising things you learned about the nuclear industry or nuclear regulation in the United States?
Plants get original 40-year licenses to operate, and then they have to reapply for another 20 years. What I found surprising was how limited the scope was in what the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] looks at to decide whether they can be relicensed. All of these issues that the public is concerned about [aren’t addressed], like whether you can evacuate. Twenty million people live in the danger zone around Indian Point, and there’s just no way to evacuate. So we have evacuation route signs all over the place—they practice for evacuation, they have siren testing. But everyone agrees, including most first responders in the tristate area, that you cannot evacuate. You know what it’s like at rush hour.
That is just one example of what is not even taken into account when the NRC decides whether a plant should be relicensed. And I started to think, “Well, that just seems crazy to me.” They’re so narrowly focused—importantly, obviously—on just the functions of the plant. They look at how a plant is aging: Are they replacing parts in a timely fashion? Are they looking at things that are degrading? So all that’s really important, but there are all these other issues, like the evacuation plan, that as the population has grown so much around the plant you’d think they would start evaluating at a certain point.
It seemed to me they were relicensing these plants kind of pro forma, like they were just saying, “OK, as long as you get your paperwork in on time and there are no glaring problems, you’re going to get relicensed.” And with Indian Point, that’s not happened because there’s so much pressure on the plant.
But it seems like it doesn’t even matter in Indian Point’s case, because they’re still operating.
And that’s the other surprising thing. They can just keep operating. We all know there are so many loopholes and regulations and things, but this is a pretty big one. If you get all your paperwork in on time, as Indian Point did, and there are no glaring safety concerns in terms of the aging management of the plant, you can keep operating as long as you are in litigation. Entergy is being challenged on many fronts, including the water permit issue that I get into in the film, and as long as they keep these cases alive by appealing and appealing—and of course they can because they have endless resources—this plant can just keep operating. They can operate for years like this.
You traveled to Fukushima to film. What was your big takeaway from there?
I found it incredibly chilling to be there. The plant itself is very strange. You don’t smell or see or touch radiation, so you don’t know. But [there’s] this whole process of getting completely suited up, and there are literally thousands of workers there, and they have to dress like that every day. I think they’re only allowed to work there for about a month at a time before they’ve been exposed for too long; it’s too dangerous. It’s almost like slave labor. It’s all men, and now, more and more, much older men who have decided, “Well, I’m not long for this world. I guess I’ll just work at cleaning up Fukushima.” And it’s going to take maybe 80 years to clean it up.
One of the things that struck me the most was seeing mounds and mounds of radioactive dirt, layers and layers of dirt, scraped off the ground all around the plant and then piled up and covered up. And then there are tanks and tanks full of radioactive water that they’re sucking out, and they don’t have anywhere to put it. And you start to get this sense, and at home too, that there are just piles and piles of waste. They call it spent fuel, but it’s still hot—they can’t just throw it in the garbage. You start to get this overall feeling that even though, yes, nuclear power doesn’t contribute to climate change much at all compared to other forms of energy we have over the world, it really is not green. There is a lot of stuff that’s left behind that we don’t know what to do with. The fact [that] there’s no federal repository for this stuff, that it’s just piling up at plants around the country, is really disconcerting.
I think why Fukushima freaked everybody out, including the industry, is they didn’t think anything like that could happen. Nobody thought you could have no backup of electricity at all. But it changed the way we do things here. Now there are backup generators galore at Indian Point, and they’re way up the hill. They used to be much closer to the riverside. So they’ve learned something from Fukushima.
In the film, the thing that winds up most jeopardizing the fate of the plant is this giant prehistoric fish, the Atlantic sturgeon. Tell me about how it becomes a major player.
The sturgeon was just recently put on the endangered species list because of how the Hudson River is changing. So we were trying to make that point in a more general way, but it’s about all fish and the whole ecosystem of the river being altered by how the plant uses the river water. I had no idea that nuclear power plants use so much water. And when you look at them all over the country—they sit on a bay, they sit on the ocean—that’s what they’re doing. [At] Fukushima they were using ocean water, so that’s why all that radiation was spilling into the Pacific. So when it comes to Indian Point, I was shocked out of my mind when I learned that they suck in 1.2 billion gallons of water a day. I kept saying, “Is that a b or anm?” [Laughs]
[The water goes] through the plant, and then back out, and it spits out so much hotter—like Jacuzzi water. The cumulative effect of that is damaging the river. So what happens is New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has been determined to deny Entergy their water permits to use the river that way, because of how many years they’ve abused the river and how many fish have died and how they’re changing the climate in the water. It’s just not sustainable. This is a battle that they have essentially won, except Entergy has endless resources to appeal, and they keep appealing.
Do you feel more nervous about living in New York now after having done this film?
It’s funny. I’ve been asked that question before, and I really don’t. I wouldn’t be able to do this kind of work if I was constantly terrified of it. There are a lot of things that I worry about more. I think there’s also something to be said for when you remove some of the mystery. It was scarier to me before I met everyone who works there. I still believe there’s a very slim chance that anything could ever happen. The scary part is that if something did, it would be so catastrophic.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Andrew Lapin is a film critic and journalist who has written for NPR, Vulture, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Indian Point Energy Center has three reactor units. Its first reactor is permanently shut down. In addition, the earlier version inaccurately stated that the state of New York has denied Entergy’s permit extension requests, when it has actually denied water permits to the plant.