Last night, four Fukushima first-responders and eyewitnesses joined a panel of U.S. disaster preparedness experts at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. The Japanese experts had come to share knowledge gleaned from traumatic first-hand experiences with nuclear meltdown with representatives in Westchester County, near the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plant. Everyone in the room was quite aware that the anniversary of (the beginning of) the disaster at Fukushima is just a week away, and international attention is bound to be refocused on the perils of nuclear power.
In New York, that attention will be honed, laser-like, on Indian Point. The 2,000 megawatt plant sits just 38 miles from New York City, the most densely populated region in the United States. Over 270,000 people live within just 10 miles of the plant—and would be most at risk to direct airborne radioactive contamination. But 17,000,000 people live within just 50 miles of the plant, and would be at risk of contamination from nuclear fallout.
Since the calamity in Japan, there's been a resurgence in opposition to Indian Point, where the operating licences for its two reactors are set to expire in 2013 and 2015.
The visiting Japanese eyewitnesses recounted the myriad woes that befell the region in the wake of the tsunami. And it should be known that the Japanese government orchestrated much more stringent safety procedures than the United Stats: There was a yearly evacuation drill that citizens participated in, which was both intended to prepare residents for an emergency and raise awareness of the risks of nuclear power.
However, the disaster easily overwhelmed such efforts, according to Mr. Kazuhiko Amano, a researcher at Fukushima University Institue for Disaster Recovery, and who was on the scene during the crisis. All of the disaster response planning was contingent on having good communication throughout the process—and the tsunami effectively shut down the nation's communications in one fell swoop. Phone lines, wifi, television; it was all shut down, largely because the power was knocked out. As a result, thousands of people around Fukushima sat in their homes, waiting for word from authorities, while the reactors began melting down nearby.
When word did spread, traffic jams ensued, and evacuations were unorganized and devastatingly slow. People sat on unmoving freeways with nowhere to go.
"These people thought they were going to die," Amano said.
Mr. Noriyuki Kitajima, a union organizer in charge of looking after the health of radiation cleanup workers, described the brutal cleanup process that is still ongoing today. Some twenty construction workers continue to subject themselves to the highest radiation levels to attempt to decontaminate the site—and they know that the radiation may shorten their lives. Thousands of people have still not returned to their homes, and remain stranded in refugee camps outside Fukushima.
Now, there hasn't been an earthquake close to the magnitude of the one that rocked Japan in New York region's recent geologic history, and the Pacific Rim is a hotbed for seismic activity. It's therefore unlikely that there would be a seismic disturbance large enough to cause such a large-scale disaster. But it's not impossible. The U.S.'s Eastern seaboard isn't as inactive as most people think—and geologists recently discovered a new fault line that runs just one mile away from Indian Point. That makes two nearby fault lines—it's long been known that the Ramapo Fault runs in close proximity to Indian Point. Neither produce large quakes by conventional standards; the bigger ones in the recent past have registered 2.6 and 3.0.
But John Armbruster, a seismologist from Columbia University, believes that with the two active faults do indeed pose risks to Indian Point, which he says was built to withstand just a 5.0—and there was a 5.5 in the region in the late 1800s. (Entergy, the company that owns and operates Indian Point, claims it could withstand a 6.1).
Meanwhile, Dr. Irwin Redlener, the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, says that in the event of a disaster hitting Indian Point, the region is extremely unprepared. Planners have failed to take into account a slew of factors, from the inevitable psychological distress of millions of people to severe transportation problems. Purdue University professor Daniel Aldrich has said that “Many scholars have already argued that any evacuation plans shouldn’t be called plans, but rather ‘fantasy documents", referring to the evacuation plan put forward by Entergy and signed off on by the state.
The event was clearly designed to produce a blunt message: Indian Point poses a grave threat to New Yorkers, who are entirely unprepared for a disaster even a fraction of the size of the one that hit Fukushima. And the message was well-delivered, and was presented primarily to a crowd of local first-responders—those who would be responsible for tending to any disaster at Indian Point—as well as some anti-nuclear activists and concerned local citizens already quite aware of the risks. But any activist intent of the gathering shouldn't discount its contents—it's pretty hard to dismiss the serious risks Indian Point poses to 5% of the entire population of the United States, however statistically low they may appear. And it's not just earthquakes, of course.
As Amano said, “Name one person who doesn’t make mistakes or one machine that doesn’t break."