Nuclear Fallout

One week before Sept. 11, Entergy purchased a nuclear power plant near Manhattan -- and is still paying the price in negative publicity.



The tentacles of the Sept. 11 attack reach around the world. For New Orleans-based Entergy, they are putting on a very tight squeeze.

Five days before the attack, on Sept. 6, 2001, the company finalized its more-than-$1 billion purchase of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Westchester County, N.Y. -- only 33 miles from Times Square. The plant's two active reactors are key to Entergy's nuclear growth strategy. The company's 4th quarter earnings alone grew from $19 billion to $29 billion between 2000 and 2001, due, according to an Entergy press release, "primarily to increased revenue ... of the Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3 nuclear units."

Indian Point is within a 50-mile radius of 20 million people, and the plant's three reactors have an uneven safety history. Indian Point 1 has been shut down "in safe storage" since the 1970s and Indian Point 2 is the nation's only nuclear reactor with a "red" safety rating from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Indian Point 3 has a stronger record, earning a "green" safety rating from the NRC.

Despite this history, the plant was a non-issue in New York before Sept. 11, with only a small band of local activists opposing Indian Point. "If you were to go out and poll people around here," says Alex Matthiessen, executive director of Riverkeeper, an environmental organization long opposed to Indian Point, "I can guarantee you that the majority of them will admit that not only were they not anti-nuclear before Sept. 11, but they weren't even environmentalists."

That collective nonchalance is a thing of the past. A furor to close Indian Point has taken root, with Entergy squarely in the crosshairs.

Opponents argue that Indian Point is a prime target for another hijacked jet and is unprepared to evacuate in an emergency. They say that Indian Point's concrete "containment domes" over the reactors were not built to withstand the impact of modern jumbo jets. And Entergy's evacuation plan won't work because it requires school bus drivers to pick up children in contaminated areas and reunite them with parents outside the affected zone.

Politicians ranging from members of Congress to local legislators have made pilgrimages to the area to demand the plant's closure. Officials who aren't explicitly for shutting down Indian Point, including Gov. George Pataki and Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, are splitting the difference by expressing "concern" about the plant's safety. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo (whose brother-in-law is Riverkeeper lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr.) is using the issue as a wedge between he and Pataki, saying, "If you don't believe the plant is safe, well then, you're the governor of the state. Don't certify it, close it down."

Local newspapers and television affiliates prominently feature the controversy in their coverage; New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently devoted all three of one week's columns to closing Indian Point. Tabloid reporters make stories out of hiring small planes to fly low over the plant, unnoticed by security. Riverkeeper, meanwhile, has relished the opportunity to showcase sudden opposition. In early April, the group released a poll of local residents showing 61 percent did not believe Entergy's evacuation plan would work, and only 3 percent could name an evacuation center.

For its part, Entergy spokesman Arthur Wiese calls the plant "a fortress," and the company is fighting back with an expensive advertising campaign dubbing Indian Point "Safe. Secure. Vital." At the same time, Entergy doesn't hide its disdain for longtime environmental activists. "[These opponents] have rather callously grabbed on to people's fears and tried to further a political agenda that's been going on for 30 years," says Wiese. "It's the old agenda of the anti-nuke movement."

From a bottom-line standpoint, the purchase of the plant is paying off. But the company's image has taken a beating. Most people in New York and around the county had never heard of Entergy prior to Sept. 11. Now their primary image of the company is as the subject of protests.

"It is perfectly understandable why people in Westchester and people in New York, period, should have concerns after 9/11," Wiese says. "They saw the impossible become possible before their eyes. And a very large percentage of the population knew someone who was hurt or died at the World Trade Center. ... We will in time be seen to be terrific operators of [Indian Point] and terrific neighbors, and we think nuclear power is good for the environment, the economy and certainly for our business."

But for still-fearful New Yorkers, Indian Point and Entergy remain synonymous with threat. Only closing the plant seems likely to change that assessment. That's a price for good public relations that Entergy seems unwilling to pay.

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