Federal control will be sought for protection of nuclear plants

Robert F. Worth
New York Times
November 21, 2001

BUCHANAN, N.Y. — The federal government should assume responsibility for protecting the country’s nuclear power plants to safeguard them from terrorist attack, a group of Democratic members of Congress from New York said today.

Speaking outside the Indian Point nuclear plant here, the lawmakers — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Representatives Nita M. Lowey and Eliot L. Engel — said they planned to introduce legislation that would include the creation of a security force within the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Mrs. Clinton also proposed to expand the evacuation zone around nuclear plants to 50 miles from 10 miles, along with other measures to protect people living close to the plants.

The federalization of airport security ignited a fierce debate in Congress before a compromise was reached. But so far, the Democrats’ proposal, whose details remain vague, has not drawn a clear response. Security at the nation’s 103 nuclear plants is handled by each plant’s owner, or a subcontractor, and that arrangement has not drawn serious criticism.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said federalizing security at the plants would probably be helpful, because security is uneven, with some owners doing the job well and others cutting back to save money.

“Having federal oversight would tend to be better than what we’ve had in the past,” he said.

Spokesmen for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Entergy, the company that owns Indian Point, said they supported better security but that it was too early to comment on the proposals.

Several elected officials have urged tighter security measures at nuclear plants since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, including Senator Charles E. Schumer, who toured Indian Point last week. But none have yet proposed that the job be federalized.

“I don’t think a piecemeal approach to security is what the people of Westchester or New York is really asking for,” said Mrs. Clinton, who plans to co-sponsor a bill next week with Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. “We’re asking for a comprehensive approach.”

The bill also calls for an expansion of the evacuation zone, and new measures to toughen the simulated terrorist attacks the federal government already conducts periodically on nuclear plants to evaluate their safety. Mrs. Clinton said she would also propose stockpiling potassium iodide, which helps to prevent cancer and other diseases among people exposed to radiation.

Safety measures have been enhanced at all of the nation’s nuclear plants since Sept. 11. At Indian Point, National Guard troops can still be seen and the Coast Guard has patrolled the Hudson nearby.

But many believe that the plant’s proximity to New York makes it inherently dangerous. About 20 million people live within 50 miles of the plant, and two weeks ago four members of Congress and a number of officials signed a petition urging that Indian Point be closed until its safety could be guaranteed.

Expanding the evacuation zone to 50 miles would include New York City, which is 30 miles to the south. Mrs. Clinton did not offer details but said “the direction and force of the wind” would be the major determinant of where an evacuation would be needed. The evacuation plan has become a sore point for many people in Westchester County who believe that it would not work in a serious accident.

Many questions about the proposals remained unanswered, including their cost. “I don’t think you can put a price tag on real security and peace of mind,” Mrs. Clinton said.


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