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Safety of Nuclear Power Plants Again Questioned

The safety at nuclear power plants is hardly a new issue in the United States. But in New York, where more than 2,800 people were killed in last year's terrorist attacks, safety at the Indian Point nuclear power plant has taken on an added sense of urgency. Workers Tuesday held an evacuation drill at Indian Point, while protesters repeated a call for the plant to be shut down.

Federal, state and local observers evaluated workers as they demonstrated their response to a simulated emergency at Indian Point Two, a controversial nuclear power plant north of New York City.

The workers practiced what they would do in case of a leak of radioactive material resulting from equipment failures, accidents and power outages. Participants declared a fictitious general emergency, the highest level of danger, and emphasized communication with local authorities to safeguard the immediate 16 kilometer area with more than 200,000 residents.

Bill Sheehan, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one of the government organizations that evaluates drills, says the exercises are crucial for assessing potential responses to emergencies, including terrorist attacks. "It is really an opportunity to put the key emergency responders through their paces to see how they would respond if there were an actual emergency," he said. "As far as how does this actually simulate what would happen if there were a terrorist attack, the reality is the response would be very much the same."

The bi-annual drill received added attention this year since it is the first to follow the September 11 attacks.

After the attacks, New York's governor increased security around Indian Point, which has two active reactors. Nonetheless, many local politicians, nearby residents and environmental activists have repeatedly called for the closure of Indian Point, owned by the corporation Entergy.

Critics argue the plant is vulnerable to a terrorist attack, which could cause a catastrophe for New York City.

At a demonstration in front of New York's City Hall, activist Elizabeth Shanklin of the Campaign to Close Indian Point, said the the evacuation drill is flawed because it does not include New York City, which is about 64 kilometers away in the so-called 'peak fatality and injury zone.' "Indian Point is the most attractive target in this city," she said. "One hit on the irradiated fuel pool and 21 million people will either be dead or contaminated and the financial center of this country destroyed. It is the most attractive target in this country."

Both government and Indian Point representatives say it is unlikely that an emergency at the Indian Point nuclear plant could spread to New York City. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will release their preliminary findings based on the drill later this week.

However, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced last month that Indian Point Two, which in the year 2000 received the lowest possible safety rating, made extensive improvements under its current owner.