The terrorists who hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001, used the Hudson River as a navigational point to find New York. They flew over fields and farmland and past the Indian Point nuclear power plant, 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan, on their journey to the World Trade Center.
A new documentary by Rory Kennedy asks: What if the terrorists following the river had banked left and hit Indian Point?
Kennedy's film, Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable (8 tonight on HBO), examines the vulnerability of Indian Point to an air or a ground attack, finds its defenses inadequate and argues that the health risks posed by the plant are so grave that it should be shut down.
Indian Point will be immediately followed on HBO by Chernobyl Heart, a powerful and painful film that focuses on the legacy of cancer and disease left by the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on the Ukraine-Belarus border. Even today, just 15 percent to 20 percent of the babies born in Belarus are healthy, doctors say.
The specter of Chernobyl hangs over Kennedy's film, aided by a graphic showing the extent of Chernobyl's radiation hot spots superimposed over a map of the Northeast United States. The hot spots spread through six states: New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Vermont and Massachusetts.
Experts say that what went wrong at Chernobyl could never happen at Indian Point because of its safety controls and other preventative measures in place. But Kennedy says the point is not the cause but the effect - the radioactive release that could threaten the 20 million people who live within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point.
In a recent phone interview, Kennedy, the youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, said she had not thought much about that possibility until Sept. 11.
"I lived in New York City and was here on that very tragic day, and in the weeks and months that followed, as we were trying to make sense of what happened, inevitably the question came up of what was going to be the next target," she said. "On the short list was always Indian Point."
The nuclear reactors at Indian Point are housed in two containment domes with cement walls up to 5 feet thick. The question of whether those domes could withstand a direct hit by a 767 with a full tank of fuel cannot be definitively answered. The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says in the film that such a breach is highly unlikely.
A more pressing issue are the pools of water containing 1,400 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods. Those advocating to shut down the plant, including Rory Kennedy's brother, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., say the spent fuel is highly vulnerable and not well protected.
The film describes a nightmarish scenario in which a terrorist group manages to drain the spent fuel pools, perhaps by firing an explosive device at their base. Then the metal cladding on the hottest spent fuel rods could ignite, starting a fire and the release of the radioactive waste Cesium-137, leading to the formation of a radioactive cloud that could float downriver to New York.
"Imagine a world without New York City," Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says in the film. "The terrorists already have."
Rory Kennedy says she went into the film without an agenda. But she came out of it believing that even though there are ways to make Indian Point safer and better protected from terrorists, there are no absolutes.
"I'm not saying it's likely there will be a major radioactive release, but the fact that it might happen is just not worth it," she says. "It's not worth killing all these people and causing billions of dollars of damage and making an area of the Eastern Seaboard uninhabitable."
Following Indian Point with Chernobyl Heart, which won the Academy Award for documentary short last year, makes a persuasive and disturbing statement. The film follows Adi Roche, founder of Ireland's Chernobyl Children's Project, on a tour of hospitals, orphanages, mental asylums and evacuated villages in Belarus.
Standing near the remains of the Chernobyl plant, where a handheld radioactivity meter is measuring radiation levels at 1,000 times the normal level, Roche is asked by filmmaker Maryann De Leo if she feels afraid.
"I'm terrified. I really am. I really am," Roche says. "But I'm actually more emotional than terrified, to think that innocuous little complex over there, that building, has caused the destruction of 9 million lives, half of which are children under the age of 5."
The images in the film are heartbreaking - children with brains growing outside of their heads, with deformed arms and legs they cannot use, with multiple holes in their hearts, lying helpless in beds and cribs - and they are backed up by awful statistics.
According to the film: In Gomel, a city less than 50 miles from Chernobyl, the rate of thyroid cancer is 10,000 times greater than before the accident. In Belarus, congenital birth defects are up 250 percent. The infant mortality rate is three times that of the rest of Europe. Some 7,000 children with heart defects are on a waiting list for cardiac surgery needed to save their lives.
A team of American doctors travels to Belarus to perform the operations. After saving the life of one young girl and receiving the thanks of her parents, Dr. William Novick says, "I appreciate this is a bit of a miracle for them. ... But we have a certain responsibility to these kids."
What Documentary about threat of terror attack at nuclear plant.
When 8 tonight on HBO