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A new documentary explores the fight around Indian Point Energy Center in the wake of Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster.
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. Two of the plant’s three reactor units are currently operating on expired licenses, with the state of New York having denied parent company Entergy’s extension requests 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…