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Aging Indian Point plant should be shut down
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA

Letters To The Editor
Bergen Daily Record
and NorthJersey.com
Friday September 4, 2009

THE TWO Indian Point nuclear reactors are in New York, but just 12 miles northeast of the Bergen County line. The reactors have been operating for 36 and 33 years, respectively, which means their 40-year federal licenses will soon expire.

Indian Point is owned by Entergy Nuclear of Jackson, Miss. Entergy wants to continue running the reactors for many more years, and has applied to federal regulators to extend their license to 60 years.

Rising energy needs in the metropolitan area must be met. But keeping aging and corroding nuclear reactors operating is a dangerous way to do it, especially because 21 million people live within 50 miles of Indian Point.

There are several ways that Indian Point endangers Bergen County. The most ominous is if a meltdown occurred, either from mechanical failure or terrorist attack. The amount of radioactivity at Indian Point – in the reactor core and the waste pools – is staggering, the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshima bombs.

The radioactivity is “hot” and must be constantly cooled with water. Any loss of cooling water, from sabotage or accident, would release these red-hot particles and gases into the air, creating the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Safe evacuation of the area is a myth. Even on a normal business day, local roads are jammed with vehicles. Trying to evacuate everyone in the area rapidly would be impossible. The fact that federal regulations only require a 10-mile radius from the plant to be evacuated makes a mockery of the situation, as radioactivity would travel much farther.

Bergen County, just beyond the 10-mile mark, would be caught in the disaster, with no help. The results would be tragic. Many thousands could suffer from acute radiation poisoning or cancer.

Possible meltdown
Meltdowns are not common, but possible. Accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl demonstrated that accidents do happen. Those reactors actually were new reactors when they melted down; the two Indian Point units have aging and corroding parts, which are arguably more likely to cause a meltdown. A recent report identified five “near miss” meltdown situations at Indian Point from 1999 to 2003.

The other meltdown scenario, from an act of terrorism, is all too real in the metropolitan area. During the Sept. 11 attacks, one of the hijacked planes flew directly over Indian Point on its way to the World Trade Center. A successful strike on the plant would inflict far more casualties than the 2,700 who perished that day. This fact, plus the subsequent discovery of al-Qaeda drawings of U.S. nuclear plants, is cause for deep concern.

But it doesn’t take another Chernobyl or Sept. 11 for nuclear reactors to harm local residents. All reactors routinely release some radioactivity into local air, water and food. More than 100 radioactive chemicals make up this cocktail, including strontium-90, iodine-131, and cesium-137. Each causes cancer, and each is especially harmful to a fetus, infant and child.

Every day, residents of Bergen County ingest radioactive chemicals from Indian Point. The levels of radiation are relatively low, and less than the maximum levels permitted by federal law. But permissible doesn’t mean safe – especially with so many in our society developing cancer, with no known cause. New Jersey has been hit especially hard by cancer; it has the third highest cancer rate of all 50 states, trailing only Rhode Island and Maine. Rates of various types of cancer in New Jersey are above the U.S. average.

Bergen County cancer rates
Bergen County has one of the highest breast cancer rates in the state. Each year, more than 1,000 women living in the county are diagnosed with the disease, which strikes young, middle-aged and elderly women. With a well-educated population, whose poverty rate is less than half the U.S. rate, and who have access to world-class medical care in the county and New York City, there is no obvious reason why breast cancer rates in Bergen County are so high.

This fact merits an investigation by health officials of all potential causes – including exposure to emissions from nuclear reactors.

Even before such an investigation produces results, steps should be taken now to lower cancer rates. One such step would be to close Indian Point, and replace it with non-polluting, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. Keeping an aging plant with frequent mechanical breakdowns that is a terrorist target and pollutes the local environment is poor health policy.

Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.

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