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The China Syndrome 2003: millions of people live in the shadow of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Government and company officials say the plant's radioactive waste is safe. But an insider who won't be silenced tells a different--and alarming--story.

Foster Zeh has a problem. Like many whistle-blowers before him, he knew the risks of his actions. But now, as he sits in his modest kitchen in Red Hook, New York, he worries. He holds himself straight-backed and stoic in military fashion, hands palms-down on the table. He worries, he says, because a spokesman for his employer felt free to disparage him in the local paper. He worries because he's been on administrative leave for months and his company is offering him a paltry $18,000 to go away and shut up.

But mostly he worries about what he knows. Zeh worked as security supervisor at the Indian Point nuclear reactor station for five and a half years. He trained the guards, plotted strategy and ran mock assault drills. He is acutely aware of the plant's potential for disaster--a catastrophe that could erase the lives of tens of thousands of people in a matter of hours. Such vulnerability, he believes, makes Indian Point the most dangerous nuclear power plant in the United States.

Worst of all, he is sure that what is obvious to him is obvious to a terrorist.

"The chances of an attack on that plant are tremendously high," says Zeh. At six feet and 208 pounds, the 44-year-old security supervisor looks as imposing as he did when he played strong safety at New Mexico Highlands University. He's a bit fleshier now, with more girth and jowls. Wearing a muscle shirt and sporting a brush cut (a throwback to his days in the Army), he could be Bruce Willis' stunt double in Die Hard. He speaks with the authority of a law enforcement professional. "Al Qaeda knows the target sets. It's no secret. They have people studying nuclear engineering at universities here. They come from Syria, Yemen, all around the Middle East."

Before he was placed on administrative leave for, he believes, pointing out dangerous security lapses, Zeh was a model employee. In 2000 he received the commendation of Supervisor of the Millennium from Wackenhut Nuclear Security. Then he began to doubt.

"Nobody has ever rocked the boat like Foster has," says George McSpedon, an ex-Marine and former co-worker of Zeh's at Indian Point. "They're going to try to slander him any way they can. But Foster knows his stuff. If I had to sit in a trench over in Kuwait with somebody, I'd want that person to be Foster. I've always trusted him."

Over the years, Zeh has become increasingly concerned about the rickety, inept defense that protects America's most lethal "soft targets." In this case, the target is 35 miles from Times Square. Foster Zeh has decided to tell his story in full--for the first time--in these pages. He is going to talk about nuclear security from the inside out. He will report on dangerous conditions at Indian Point's spent-fuel pools that until now have been hidden from the public, denied by Indian Point officials and whitewashed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Zeh's allegations are convincing to many in the industry, and his assessments put New York City closer to a nuclear disaster than most people could imagine.

"It's one of the worst," says Pete Stockton when asked about Indian Point. Stockton was a special assistant to the secretary of energy in the Clinton administration and now works with a watchdog group called the Project on Government Oversight. "It's a lack of thought in their defensive plan, it's fatigued guards who work too much overtime, it's the training of the guards, everything. Few of our plants are ready for a real terrorist attack."

Security at nuclear plants now is comparable to security at the nation's airports before September 11--a weak government agency sets the standards, and the utilities hire the cops themselves. In 2002, during his State of the Union address, President Bush warned the nation of vulnerabilities at nuclear facilities. "A year later, the NRC has done nothing to improve the safety and security of our nation's nuclear power plants," says Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. With five other senators, Reid has recently reintroduced the Nuclear Security Act after it stalled in Congress last year. "In fact, the only step the NRC has taken is to say it's unable to calculate the risk of a terrorist attack and will therefore not include that as a risk factor when it considers opening new facilities. The NRC has been so negligent that one third of the employees working for the agency question its dedication to safety. Something must be done."

But, as Foster Zeh was to learn, telling the world about the dangers of a nuclear power plant operating in Manhattan's shadow would have dangers all its own.

Zeh stands on a bank of the Hudson, looking across a bend in the river at Indian Point's three signature containment domes. They loom over the river valley like giant concrete sculptures while steam rises lazily from adjacent buildings. He points to the northernmost dome. "That's Indian Point 2," he says. "The other big one is Indian Point 3. The small one in the middle is Indian Point 1--it was shut down in 1974 because it had no emergency core cooling system." The other two have been operating since the mid-Seventies, and they have had all sorts of operational failures--including the release of radioactive water in 1993 and again in 2000.

Something catches Zeh's eye, and he points again. "See the glare from that windshield? That's a security vehicle--the guard just gave his position away. Notice that all the guard stations are on the roofs of the low buildings, which leaves them vulnerable to being shot at from the hills that form a basin around the plant." Later he drives past the guard post at the entrance to Indian Point's driveway. …

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