A Q&A with “Indian Point” filmmaker Ivy Meeropol on the future of the nuclear plant

First Run Features, Shutterstock/mandritoiu
Ivy Meeropol and Indian Point

A Q&A with “Indian Point” filmmaker Ivy Meeropol on the future of the nuclear plant

A Q&A with “Indian Point” filmmaker Ivy Meeropol on the future of the nuclear plant
July 19, 2016

When Ivy Meeropol moved to the Hudson Valley a decade ago, she grew curious about the controversy surrounding the nearby Indian Point nuclear plant. So she began doing research for a documentary film about the plant, which sits about 25 miles from New York City.

City & State’s Jon Lentz spoke with Meeropol about the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the effectiveness of federal nuclear regulators in the United States and her documentary about her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for spying for the Soviets. The following is an edited transcript.

C&S: How did you get interested in Indian Point?

IM: I moved from the city up to the Hudson Valley about 10 years ago, and I moved to a small town that is about 15 miles from the plant. You move to a town close to a nuclear power plant and you hear the sirens testing and you get a pamphlet in the mail from the Emergency Services Department titled “Are you ready?” So you’re supposed to know your evacuation route, you’re supposed to have potassium iodine in your home and for your kids, and there are all these things that I had to think about. I also was commuting in and out of the city, so in the film when you see that view from the train, that’s my view. I became quite intrigued by how it looks, sitting there on banks of the Hudson. I had an inkling that Indian Point was a controversial plant, but I think many people living in the city have no idea how close it is. That also struck me: This is not that far from the city.

C&S: What did you learn while making the documentary?

IM: One of the first things I read as I was learning about plants across the U.S. and the relicensing process was that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considered Indian Point the most contentious license renewal application that they’d ever seen. As a filmmaker, you think there’s potentially some drama, there’s a story, there’s tension. Right around that time, and this was still in the research phase, Fukushima happened. I really thought this is urgent. I didn’t know enough, but I wondered if this (would) change the debate, reinvigorate the activists who have been trying to close the plant, and also what would this do to the industry. I thought if I could get access to the plant, I would want to pursue this as a film. That’s how it started. Ultimately I managed to get the access that I wanted, and it took off from there.

C&S: Did you come to any conclusions about nuclear power or this particular plant?

IM: I found it strangely reassuring to go inside the plant. I don’t know what I expected, but I was definitely scared. I grew up in a “No Nukes” home, and as a kid going to “No Nukes” concerts with my parents, I grew up assuming this was a dangerous, terrible thing and something to be afraid of. I want to push against those preconceived notions and not let them get in the way of making a film. Going inside, I really did feel that these guys are on top of it, and thank goodness that they’re here. That said, everything I’ve learned about Indian Point and how close it is to New York City and how there are so many things that can happen that are completely out of their control, I don’t think that Indian Point is sustainable. On top of that, learning about how much spent fuel continues to pile up there and other plants around the country even though nuclear power can appear to be this great potential solution to our urgent concerns with climate change, the fact that we don’t know what to do with all this radioactive material, and it’s just sitting there, is really problematic.

C&S: While watching the film, I was surprised by the disagreement at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission between then-NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko and the other commissioners. Are the regulators doing a good job?

IM: That was a surprising turn for me, too. I started out making a film about Indian Point, the people outside trying to shut it down and the people inside just doing their job. But Fukushima made it so I was constantly paying attention to what was happening at the NRC, and I started following Greg Jaczko’s story, and I was impressed by how he was pushing back on the industry based on what they were learning at Fukushima. Then I learned that he had announced his resignation. I thought that was fishy, because here’s a young guy at the top of his game and his career, and he’s finding his voice and he’s doing what a regulator is supposed to be doing and he’s suddenly announced his resignation. So I wanted to get to the bottom of that. What I found is he was the subject of a witch hunt. They never found anything to back up the claims against him. I was surprised by how all these other commissioners at the NRC were so willing to gang up on him and remove him. It made me wonder how our regulatory bodies are captured by the industry that they regulate. That was the scariest thing to me. The guys at the plant can do their best effort all the time, but if we don’t have a regulatory body actually checking to make sure that the industry is doing what they’re supposed to and replacing parts and inspecting – their job is to fine Entergy if they see anything wrong, and they let them get away with a lot of problems. The short answer is, no, I think we have a big problem with the NRC. There are a lot of great staff members at the NRC doing their jobs, but if the leadership at the commissioner level is not in charge and they’re more interested pleasing the industry, that is a very dangerous situation.

C&S: In New York, it’s clear that Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to shut down Indian Point.

IM: At the state level, the thing that could get the plant shut down is this water permit issue. That’s unprecedented. As far as I know, no other state has been able to deny a nuclear power plant a water permit. The only reason it hasn’t shut down the plant yet is Entergy keeps appealing, and they can keep it alive and keep it open for years.

C&S: Your first documentary was “Heir to an Execution,” about your grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of spying for the Soviets and executed here in New York. How was this project different?

IM: That film was as personal as you can get. I was interviewing my father and my uncle and talking about my family. I was trying to humanize my own grandparents, who I’d never met, who were considered ultimate evil by some people or these incredible innocent martyrs by others. They’re admired or hated, and lived in this mythic realm. I really wanted to understand who they were as people and I think that now is something that informs how I approach everything. I feel it’s good to humanize people on all sides of the story and remove the hysteria, if you can. That’s what I tried to do with Indian Point. This was a tougher project in some ways because there was no clear storyline. Until the Jaczko storyline happened, I didn’t have any kind of narrative that had any change or that evolved, in terms of structuring a film. With “Heir to an Execution,” the challenges were definitely more on a personal level. I would be nervous that I was pushing my father too much or that I was going places that would upset some members of my family, and I just had to barrel through. With “Indian Point,” it was more of an intellectual challenge. 

C&S: “Indian Point” opened on July 8. Where can people see it?

IM: It opened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and we’re hoping people will come out to see it. It’s very challenging to get people to go to a film like this.

C&S: What’s next for you?

IM: I’m working on a documentary series for the National Geographic Channel right now called the “Years of Living Dangerously.” It’s an interesting program that will air this fall. They’re short documentaries all dealing with climate change.

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s editor-in-chief.