A Clinton-Giuliani Nuclear Showdown?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Monika Graff / Getty

Indian Point Energy Center Nuclear Plant

Indian Point Energy Center, located just a few dozen miles north of New York City, has been a source of intense scrutiny for years. The 2,000-megawatt nuclear facility, which serves New York City and the surrounding areas, earned abysmal safety ratings from federal regulators even before 9/11. Today, critics say that, although it has improved its safety standards, it's still vulnerable to terrorist attack, particularly one that might come in the form of a suicide bomber using a plane. Now concerns over the nuclear facility have embroiled two potential Presidential candidates from New York, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The debate over Indian Point was stirred up last November, when Entergy Nuclear Northeast, the company that runs Indian Point, announced that this spring it would be applying for a permit with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to run Indian Point for another 20 years. Giuliani, who was hired by Entergy as a security consultant in 2003, said at a press conference in late November that he felt the nuclear plant was secure.

"Indian Point is as safe as a facility can be, and a pretty good model, if not an excellent model, for not only other nuclear power plants but other industries that in many ways are just as sensitive [to security threats]," Giuliani said. The former mayor added that his consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, led Entergy through 12 security drills and that Entergy had spent more than $24 million in security improvements in recent years.

But on the same day that Giulinai declared Indian Point to be safe, Senator Clinton expressed doubts. "Everything should be on the table during the relicensing process, and the public's concerns must be addressed," the Democratic Presidential hopeful said in a terse statement. Last month she reintroduced legislation calling for an independent safety assessment of the plant.

Both candidates have carefully avoided referring to each other, so there has yet been no open clash between the two campaigns. Nonetheless, the situation is an early test of their views on the complicated issue of nuclear power.

Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies who served in the Energy Department under President Bill Clinton, points out that none of the Presidential candidates have a solid resume on the issue of nuclear power. As a mayor, Giuliani had no jurisdiction over New York State's nuclear facilities, and Clinton has gained a seat on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee only since the Democrats took control of Congress after last November's elections.

For Giuliani, Indian Point could be an early test of his credibility on the nuclear issue. Since he was a paid consultant who did public relations for the industry, says Alvarez, "it discredits him in my mind about this." Meanwhile, although Clinton has been issuing cautionary statements about Indian Point and nuclear security since 2003, activists are disappointed that she has not called for Indian Point's permanent closure, only for an independent review.

Concerns about Indian Point grew after 9/11, when it was noted that American Airlines Flight 11 flew almost directly over Indian Point on its way to the north tower of the World Trade Center. While the plant has been improving its environmental and security record, David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, contends that federal standards still aren't high enough.

"We're basing security assumptions on the idea that only a small group of bad guys will go after the plant, and that there will be no aircraft involved," he said. "If that's true, if the bad guys cooperate with our assumptions, then we're OK." If not, he says, the scenario could be grim. Lochbaum cites a report written by his organization that claims a successful assault on Indian Point could result in the immediate deaths of as many as 44,000 people, with nuclear fallout eventually causing cancer in half a million people or more.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission can take up to two years to review a relicensing permit. That means that Indian Point will be in the news again, well into the two candidates' Presidential campaigns.