New Documentary Investigates Nuclear Power from New York to Fukushima

A Conversation with Indian Point Director Ivy Meeropol

Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest that the “past is prologue.” In an irony of history, a filmmaker whose grandparents were so-called “atomic spies, and the only American civilians electrocuted by the US government during the Cold War, is now trying to shutdown a nuclear power plant in New York.

photo of Ivy Meeropol Photo Courtesy of Indian Point Film Production, LLC

Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for espionage on June 19, 1953 for allegedly passing A-bomb secrets to the Soviets. She is the daughter of Michael Meeropol, who — after his parents’ death — was adopted by songwriter Abel Meeropol, composer of the 1936 anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” famously sung by Billie Holiday and the pro-integration song “The House I live In.”

Ivy Meeropol previously directed 2004’s Heir to an Execution, an extremely personal HBO film that examined the case of the Rosenbergs, whose contentious electrocution took place at New York’s Sing Sing prison — only 10 miles from the nuclear Indian Point Energy Center. The Brooklyn-born, Massachusetts-raised Meeropol’s absorbing, incisive, new documentary Indian Point investigates this 1960s-built nuclear power facility, which sits just 35 miles north of New York City and is currently working to relicense two of its reactors. It also probes the 2012 ousting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko, who was accused of bullying and intimidating employees, plus the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, triggered by a 2011 earthquake and tidal wave that caused meltdowns and the release of radioactive isotopes at the Japanese nuclear power plant.

The writer/director skillfully interweaves these three strands into a cohesive, comprehensive 94-minute tapestry exploring the controversial nuclear industry. In doing so, she evenhandedly interviews employees and executives of Entergy Corporation, which operates Indian Point, as well as activists opposing it. Her rare access enabled the intrepid filmmaker to enter both the Fukushima and New York facilities, allowing unusual insight into the inner workings, and politics, of the plants.

Like a cinematic sleuth, Meeropol doggedly pursued the different threads of the saga. If Woodward and Bernstein “followed the money” during Watergate, Meeropol followed the radiation, so to speak. In a balanced yet bold, unflinching way, Meeropol proves once again in Indian Point that the personal is political, and reveals that controversies swirling around nuclear power are anything but a tempest in a teapot.

Why did you decide to make a documentary about Indian Point?

Today I live probably 15 miles from Indian Point in Cold Spring, a little Hudson River village, one of the Hudson River towns that line the river. My husband and I moved there when our son was one year old. We moved there from Brooklyn. That’s what started the path to make a film about Indian Point, because we moved to a town close enough to a nuclear reactor — we’re not quite a “reactor community,” as people call them when you’re really close, living in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, but we’re close enough.

One of the first things we got in the mail when we first moved in was this booklet with the title “Are You Ready?” in big bold letters on the cover. The Putnam County Emergency Services, which is partially funded by Entergy, puts out this flyer, which I always find a little strange. I’m reading about how close we are to a nuclear power plant and periodically we’d hear the sirens being tested. We’d get robocalls saying ‘Indian Point will test the sirens at 10:00 a.m.,’ blah blah blah. It’s an eerie thing being told you need a hardy supply of potassium iodine pills in your home, all that. It just piqued my interest.

But what really got me was taking a train in and out of New York City. You go right by the plant. And it’s just a striking, foreboding-looking place and I became very interested. I started reading a little bit about it and one of the first things I read was that the NRC has a licensing process and every 20 years these plants have to be looked at for relicensing. What really, really piqued my interest was that the NRC considered Indian Point’s [2007] license renewal application the most contentious they’d ever seen — and that’s out of 104 old plants in the country.

So of course, you’re a filmmaker and you think, ‘There’s possibly some drama.’ And believe it or not, that was just before Fukushima happened [in March 2011], and I felt it was urgent. That actually got me over the hump to really dedicate myself to doing something like this, because it takes so long, it’s so much work and it’s so hard to raise money for these films. I need to have a sense of urgency, like with my first film, Heir to an Execution, for it to take over and feel like I have to do it. That’s what happened with Indian Point.

Your film has three main leitmotifs: Indian Point, Fukushima, and former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko. Do you think that Jaczko was subjected to allegations about his treatment of employees and eventually left his position as chairman because he was too critical of the nuclear industry?

Yes, I do. I do. It was a confluence of events but they really raked him over the coals. This is a guy who self-admittedly says Fukushima changed how he viewed his job. He was a regulator who worked for a powerful industry and probably didn’t feel like he had a lot of power. Before Fukushima he bought into what the industry line was and what a lot of the NRC members believe, which is that a meltdown like Fukushima couldn’t happen.

Then when Fukushima happened, it changed the way he viewed his job. He became more of an activist chairman. He gathered the staff around him.

Much of what he was proposing wasn’t anything all that radical… He really was just trying to respond to Fukushima, to figure out what happened there and try to make sure it didn’t happen here in the US. Not the tsunami part — but the meltdown. He directed his staff to look closely at Fukushima and come up with recommendations for the NRC, which they did. The rest of the commissioners didn’t like it because — I’m totally convinced of this — they’re too close to the industry and knew it would cost the industry a lot to make the new changes and they weren’t going to do it.

I’m sure there was some real friction there, but the NRC blew it up into a different story, saying that Jaczko was a horrible boss and yelled at people. That he was an angry boss, he kept things from them, and he kept people out of meetings. When that didn’t really stick, the story became that he yelled at women staffers and made them cry. His staff, when he did resign, made this beautiful book for him, because they knew what he had been through and how he was really railroaded out of there.

I got to know him really well — he’s a gentle person, he’s not a tyrant. The NRC painted this picture of him but none of the allegations stuck in the end. The NRC’s Inspector General’s report came back with absolutely nothing on him. He’s unemployed now.

One of the amazing things about your documentary is the access you had to Fukushima and Indian Point.

Fukushima did scare the hell out of me; I’m not going to lie. That was not fun. I had never been to Japan. I just wanted to get home after that experience. That was a very scary thing. They didn’t let me film in the highly radioactive areas.

The Jaczko part of the story came as a big surprise to me. I wasn’t planning on following the story at that level. I thought, if I get access to the Fukushima plant, then I have my story. It’ll be a portrait of people who work inside a nuclear power plant struggling with the people outside who want to shut it down, and that would be the tension. Once you immerse yourself in a story like this, you’re tuned into everything going on. I was noticing what was happening with Jaczko and when I heard he was resigning, I thought, now that’s a story.

How were you able to get into the Indian Point facility?

[Laughs.] A lot of tenacity. I decided that only if I could get real access inside the plant did I have a film worth making. I spoke with Jim Steets, communications guy for Entergy, a spokesman for the plant. It was really a process of creating relationships and trust and it took months and months. What I kept saying to them was, ‘Nobody sees your side of the story.’ I didn’t mean the Entergy executives giving their canned lines, but the people who actually live and work at the plant.

That’s how I got to meet Brian Vangor, a senior control room operator there. He was my ticket inside. I forged a real friendship with him. He’s just a wonderful person. He understood what I was trying to get. I never misconstrued what I was doing. I always said, ‘I’ve got activists in this story, but I want your voices in there too.’ We filmed inside of the plant eight times.

It was tremendously and surprisingly reassuring for me to go inside the plant and meet all the people who work there who — I don’t say this lightly — I really believe care about safety as much as the people outside the plant who want to shut it down. They are vigilant.

Photo Courtesy of Indian Point Film Production, LLC Workers at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, as seen in the documentary Indian Point.

By the same token, what was so chilling was Brian saying ‘Our job is to get through our shift unscathed.’ The fact that that’s how he sees his job tells me that, longterm, this is untenable. Any kind of energy technology that is so potentially catastrophic that the people who work at the plant characterize their own job as making sure they just get through unscathed isn’t tenable. I really tried to go in with an open mind — not from my “no nukes” stance — and I came out of there really, really respecting everyone who worked there and feeling better about it in some ways, but also ultimately feeling this is a dying industry. Especially now, with solar and wind, we don’t need it.

Well, those employees at the plant concerned with safety are literally on the frontlines.

Exactly.

You point out in the film that Indian Point is “on two fault lines.” Is that an earthquake area?

Yes. We’re not known for earthquakes. There are two fault lines. They knew about one when they built the plant. The other one was discovered afterward. From what I understand, we’re potentially due for a fairly large earthquake on the Ramapo Fault Line, which runs right under the plant.

But New York wasn’t known for hurricanes, either.

Exactly, exactly. [In 2012,] during Hurricane Sandy, Indian Point was close to being flooded, because the nearby Hudson River is a tidal river. It didn’t rain as much as they thought it would in our area, but Indian Point probably would have flooded if it had. People didn’t talk about that much. But I knew, because Brian Vangor was on alert, sleeping in his car in Indian Point’s parking lot in case anything went wrong. We’re going to have more and more of these storms because of climate change.

In 2015, Indian Point was denied a permit to continue withdrawing water from the Hudson River, right?

Photo of Indian Point Poster

Yes. Basically, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation decided after many years of looking at how the plant abuses the river that Indian Point should not be allowed a water permit because of the impact on the fish population. Water withdrawals just destroy too much fish larvae and disrupt the river’s aquatic life.

Indian Point uses 1.5 billion gallons of water a day, sucked through the plant from the Hudson River, then spit back out, hotter — another way nuclear power plants affect the environment. Indian Point creates terrible pollution in the river and it’s destroying the river. The plant uses as much water in one day as everyone in New York City uses combined.

So the DEC denied the plant a water permit. It’s a great way to try and shut the plant down because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires plants to have a water permit from the state they operate in in order to get relicensed.

This is precedent-setting, because as far as I’m aware, at no other time has a plant been shut down because a water permit was denied. They haven’t done it yet. That’s why we’re so optimistic in the film, because the water permit denial could be the way the plant gets shut down. There’s a lot of momentum. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York State, and the DEC are not giving up on shutting down the plant.

In the midst of all this, licenses for both reactors ran out, and they haven’t been renewed by the NRC, so Indian Point is operating the reactors without a license. [Indian Point reactors can continue operating without a license during the relicensing process. The plant has experience several difficulties this year, however, including two shutdowns of the Unit 2 reactor since late June.]

What’s next for you?

I’m directing episodes for the National Geographic Channel’s Years of Living Dangerously global warming series to air in the fall, hosted by former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi and Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong, who co-stars in Ghostbusters.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Indian Point will be theatrically released July 8 in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and on July 22 in Los Angeles, and released on DVD Oct. 25. For more information, visit the Indian Point website.

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