When the tsunami impacted Fukushima Daini Power Plant on March 11, 2011, there were equipment failures that resulted in an explosion, and on March 12th, three nuclear meltdowns and a release of radioactive materials. The Fukushima disaster, second in severity to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, is a terrifying reminder of the sleeping monster of nuclear power.
This monster’s shadow looms over the planet. If it’s awakened to its fullness, it can ravage our environment with radiation contamination of air, soil, and water. The havoc created would have the potential to destroy thriving population centers and reduce them to wastelands in a condition that could last for centuries. As a result of the Fukushima nuclear incident, the controversial role of nuclear power as a way to provide “clean energy” intensified global discussions about the safety of the 435 nuclear plants in the world, many of them aging and in need repairs and updates.
In the excellent documentary Indian Point by Ivy Meeropol, the director examines the controversial role of nuclear power as a way to provide “clean energy,” despite the sounding alarm of environmental activists, journalists, scientists, and some members of the NRC. These have assiduously gone on record and protested the monolithic risks that aging nuclear power plants present, especially in light of the equipment failures that prompted the Fukushima disaster.
Meeropol dissects the issues by taking her cameras thirty-five miles up the Hudson River to Buchanan, New York, where the Indian Point Energy Center is located. “Indian Point” is a three-unit nuclear power plant station located 25 miles from New York City and 35 miles from downtown Manhattan. The nuclear power plant, which was established in the 1960s, is over 50-years-old. The film uncovers that Indian Point’s operating license expired in 2013. Activists demanded that the plant should not have its license renewed and be closed down. Meanwhile, despite regulations, the plant was still operating and the company managed to sidestep the controversy with a promise to deal with updates amidst contentions.
Meeropol’s work is thought-provoking and revelatory. She gains access to the aging power plant and its environs. She brings her camera inside, uses archival footage, and shows the reactor and monitoring rooms. She intersperses clips to include interviews with power plant employees and others. They are reassuring. They diffuse the remembrance that Indian Point is in close proximity to one of the most dense population centers in the world and cannot afford even the whiff of a notion of safety issues, let alone any hint of a problem of radiation leakage from reactors.
With interviews of governmental officials, employees, the former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, environmental activists, scientists, journalists, and residents who live in the nearby communities, Meeropol focuses on the tough issues that must be considered. What is the true condition of the U.S. nuclear power plant fleet? What will be the fate of all the radioactive waste products the plants generate? What should be the direction of nuclear power in the future?
Meeropol’s perspective is open and as moderate as is possible with the subject. She canvasses the lives of various employees who work at the Indian Point Energy Center. One employee, who is a supervisor, discusses the intense responsibility and concern of all who work at the plant. He and other employees share their love of their positions and express a deep understanding of the import of their mission. Aware of the disastrous consequences of Three Mile Island, which happened in the U.S. and the evolving consequences of Fukushima, they take their jobs very seriously.
Meeropol has the engineers and others discuss the workings of the plant and specifically the reactor which is cooled by the best shield of all, water, which cuts down on 99% of the radiation produced. She reveals their precautionary measures to prevent contamination of themselves (the layers of clothing, protective suits, gloves, etc.), as well as the prevention of radioactive gas leakage in the environment. Their protocol is the 24/7 prevention and minimalization of risks at all levels of energy production with round the clock monitoring by employees.
In juxtaposition with this perspective, Meeropol identifies the counterarguments, using her camera as a filtering device to echo viewpoints of activists working to close down Indian Point. Riverkeeper, the environmental group that monitors the Hudson River, is quoted on record as asserting that the fish and other marine life are gravely impacted by the plant which sucks in water from the river and expels it, lacerating and destroying the fish and marine animals sucked in and expelled with the water. Meeropol shows clips which substantiate Riverkeeper’s assertions. On the other hand she includes the counterargument from the scientists hired by the company who state that there is minimal damage to the marine life in the Hudson River and that the eco-system has not been impacted.
As Meeropol presents the issues and reveals the perspectives on each side of the chasm, she allows the audience to weigh the evidence in the balance and gauge which arguments are sounder and more cogent. The company in charge of Indian Point on the one hand affirms that the Indian Point Energy Center is viable and provides safe, clean energy in comparison to that offered by fossil fuels. Though only their employees are interviewed in the film and the CEO is not featured, their website gives updates on the power plant’s activities and presents the image of good will, of being responsible patrons of the environment, and of being watchmen wherever possible securing safety and acting to preserve a healthy environment.
On the other side of the chasm, resident activists within 10-20 miles of the area have protested with sit-ins and meetings. Meeropol includes brief clips to identify the sentiment and determination of the groups. Advocates promote the shut-down of Indian Point. They enforce the argument that there is no reasonable evacuation plan for the dense population if an event should occur. They support Riverkeeper’s contentions that the environment is slowly being devastated and that radiation leaks may be present, though they apparently are under what NRC guidelines suggest. This is a brutal controversy: what radiation leakage is ever a safe amount?
A vital component of Meeropol’s film covers the role that the NRC plays in regulating nuclear plants across the country with a particular focus on Indian Point. The director includes clips of commentary and meetings. These feature both officials at the NRC, and all those attempting to hold the agency accountable for regulating the aging power plants. The activists and advocates attempt to encourage the NRC to enforce that the regulations must be followed or licenses for the plants not be renewed. Indian Point was operating without a license because it did not complete the updates to the plant based on contentious issues. It was not closed down. Activists imply that the NRC is doing little to protect the public against an incident. In the film the point is unmistakable: the plant applied for a renewal license, faced contentions, the license expired, it still operated, the NRC allowed it to operate while contentions were resolved.
Meeropol reveals the efforts of the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory B. Jaczko. He understands the problems, moves for consensus, and attempts to moderate both sides of the equation. He is to be credited for his concern and movement to make sure that power plants’ safety protocols are regulated to a “T.” However, during the course of the film, Meeropol navigates the turbulence at the NRC. She reveals the intractability of some of the members of the commission who disagree with Jaczko. They force his resignation after he attempts to hold the companies with nuclear power plants accountable for updates to their plants. With cogent editing, Meeropol parallels Jaczko’s concerns about the aging plants alongside those activists who state that there are mechanical problems at Indian Point that need addressing.
After Jaczko’s enforced resignation, he has not worked in the industry or government again. It is a message that rings loud and clear to future NRC Commissioners. Unfortunately, whether true or not, it is evidence of what activists have been saying: the NRC is political, the NRC is a creature of the nuclear power industry; the NRC does not completely fulfill its mandate to protect the public which it is commissioned to serve through its regulatory powers.
In addition to the political battles for proper regulation of plants is the overriding issue that Meeropol suggests through the various perspectives she highlights in the documentary. The nuclear power industry fronts dinosaur technologies. They are technologies in the current state of mining and processing that produce amounts of radioactive waste that are becoming difficult to handle and dispose of. Yucca Mountain has been discontinued/defunded as the radioactive waste disposal site. Where is an adequate place for radioactive waste to be stored?
In light of the arguments and issues which Meeropol lays out clearly in Indian Point, how must policy makers and leaders and the public approach nuclear energy delivered by companies who have nuclear power plants they established years ago? Who should be making the final decisions about their repairs, updates, closings? Who has the greater imperative- those who risk investment or those whose lives may be at stake? Should politics mediate this or should effective leadership at the NRC be independent of politics? Meerpole’s film centers on these extremely vital concerns and creates the platform for dialogue that should foment a consensus of action in our post-Fukushima culture. How nuclear power is regulated impacts all of us. As she suggests in the film, there should be no divide.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0199759464] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B004GUS68I]