Just 50 miles south of Woodstock, the two Indian Point nuclear reactors continue to operate, as they have since the mid-1970s. Federal regulators will soon decide whether to allow the reactors to operate for another 20 years. Entergy Nuclear, which operates Indian Point, presents the plant as a "clean" way of meeting future energy needs. But is this a true statement, or a slogan?
To produce electricity, Indian Point generates high heat and huge amounts of radioactive chemicals - the same mix in atomic bomb tests. These chemicals are essentially waste products. Much is stored on the site, while some is released into local air and water.
Waste must be stored in deep pools of water that must be constantly cooled. Loss of cooling water would mean a meltdown. The area could not be evacuated safely, and many thousands would suffer from radiation poisoning or cancer. The catastrophic accident at the Chernobyl reactor, and the fact that one of the hijacked planes flew directly over Indian Point on 9/11 are grim reminders of this possibility.
The radioactivity that can't be retained in the plant is emitted into the air. It enters human bodies by breathing and the food chain. Radioactive chemicals cause cancer, and are especially harmful to the fetus, infant, and child. Doses are low, but in 2005, the National Academy of Sciences reported that all exposures are harmful, based on hundreds of scientific studies.
Just last week, a journal article examining U.S. thyroid cancer rates was released. Rockland, Putnam, and Orange counties - all of which border Indian Point - had the highest rates in New York State, and among the highest in the U.S. Aside from radiation exposure, there are no other known causes of thyroid cancer, so Indian Point emissions may be contributing to these high rates.
The decision on what to do with Indian Point's old, corroding reactors should be primarily a public health decision. With 21 million persons living within 50 miles of Indian Point, the stakes are extremely high. Assertions that nuclear reactors are "clean" are just slogans. Less toxic ways to create electricity - clean renewable sources, conservation, and greater efficiency - should be emphasized over dangerous sources like nukes.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.