The study calculates a 1.5 percent chance that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake could occur within the next 50 years. That would be a force 32 times the amount the Indian Point reactors were designed to withstand.
"Indian Point is situated ... in the midst of a large population," said report author Lynn R. Sykes in an interview. "This is clearly one of the least favorable sites in our study area from an earthquake hazard and risk perspective."
Fleeing a Meltdown at Rush Hour
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved an evacuation plan for Indian Point intended to cover a 10-mile radius of the plant. Many local residents scoffed at the plan, pointing to its dependence on school bus drivers and busy suburban roads.
"There is no way we'd get out alive," said Alison Hendrie, a publicist and mother of four living in nearby Croton-on-Hudson.
The Japan crisis appears to be exacerbating these concerns.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko advised American citizens living within 50 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi complex to evacuate. This 50-mile distance applied to Indian Point would include nearly all of New York City. It would require evacuating an estimated 20 million people, the combined populations of New York City and the suburbs surrounding Indian Point.
NRC spokesperson Burnell says it is unfair to compare Fukushima and Indian Point evacuation distances.
"It's not apples to apples; it's apples to watermelon," he said. "Emergency planning continues to be appropriate."
First and Top Priority: Indian Point
NRC agreed last month to make the Indian Point plan their "first and top priority" in a current study evaluating the risk of the 27 nuclear power plants located in seismic zones nationwide, said Beth Hayden, a NRC spokeswoman.
This study, however, is not expected to be completed until 2012. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Indian Point's relicensing review.
Burnell said that "it is possible that the NRC decision could be made before Indian Point comes in with the information."
He added that "if at any point during the plant's licensed lifetime, information comes to light showing the plant is not meeting its requirements, then NRC would require the plant to shut down."
Playing the Odds
Clear data measuring seismic risk has been hard to come by.
Burnell spoke at length about NRC's confidence based on extensive studies that Indian Point, along with the rest of the U.S. nuclear fleet, is built to safely withstand earthquakes and other disasters. But he declined to reveal any calculations regarding the odds of an earthquake causing a catastrophe at a nuclear plant.
Brian Schimmoller, a spokesperson for the Electric Power Research Institute, the group NRC contracted to calculate nuclear risk, said that models are still under development and will not be available until later this year. MSNBC used its own calculations and information it gleaned from NRC to rank power plants in terms of risk. It placed Indian Point's unit 3 at the highest risk of a seismic event happening each year, with a chance of 1 in 10,000.
By comparison, there is a one in a million chance that a 9.0 magnitude earthquake would occur in any given year, according to a British Geological Survey report.
Indian Point is No Fukushima
The Fukushima and Indian Point nuclear plants, of course, are designed to withstand most disasters. Regarding safety, discussions with Indian Point spokespeople and other nuclear experts reveal similarities between the plants, as well as key safety differences.
Both sites rely on similar fail-safe mechanisms in the event that control rods used to power the plants and pump cooling water shut down. Japan's six reactors relied on 13 backup diesel generators. Indian Point's two units have 8 backup generators, Nappi said. The Fukushima and Indian Point plants maintain onsite spent fuel rods that contain used radioactive fuel. These spent rods along with the active uranium rods that power nuclear plants must be kept in cool water to prevent a meltdown.
There are, however, substantial differences between the plants.
Indian Point units 2 and 3, built in 1974 and 1976, use a Westinghouse pressurized water design that generates steam to spin turbines that generate energy. (Indian Point 1 began operating in 1962 and was decommissioned in 1974.) The Fukushima reactors, in contrast, were built in the 1960s and depend on boiling water.
More importantly, the Fukushima reactors, unlike those at Indian Point, rely on American-made General Electric Mark 1 steel and concrete vessels to contain the nuclear fuel rods that power the plant. These Mark 1 vessels, nuclear experts say, are not as strong and are more likely to crack than containment vessels made later.
The tsunami knocked out the Fukushima generators leaving the plants to rely on battery power. Batteries designed to last for a short time ran out of power before emergency help could reach the devastated area and repairs could be made.
While Japanese officials ran out of most options for the disabled Fukushima plant, choosing to pump seawater into the reactors, Indian Point's backup design offers a residual steam system to drive auxiliary pumps and move water, Nappi said.
In addition, Indian Point houses its spent fuel rods almost entirely below grade along the Hudson River making it difficult for water to seep and stay out.