Orange County yesterday joined Westchester in its refusal to certify the effectiveness of the emergency evacuation plans for the 300,000 people living within 10 miles of the nuclear power plants at Indian Point.

Orange County Executive Edward Diana ordered his staff not to certify the plans for the state and said it may be necessary to close the plants. Diana followed Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano’s decision Monday not to certify that the county has done everything it can to ensure the emergency plan will work.

The State Emergency Management Office uses the certifications from Westchester, Rockland, Orange and Putnam counties to officially report that the evacuation plans are effective.

Similar notices are required for counties within 10 miles of the other six nuclear plants in the state.

“If the counties do not provide the information,” said SEMO spokesman Dennis Michulski, “then the state cannot move forward.”

The state emergency agency will meet with representatives of the counties today in Albany to hand out the certification forms. The certification is sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency which, in turn, notifies the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the plant has effective emergency plans in accord with its license.

Without approved plans that can protect the public health and safety, the NRC may be forced to close the plants. The deadline for the state certification is Jan. 31.

Suzanne Morris, spokeswoman for Gov. George Pataki, said “if two counties certify the plan and two counties don’t, that is a circumstance we have never dealt with before. SEMO would have to evaluate it in consultation with the governor. But the state certification is dependent on the county certification. If the counties don’t certify the plan, then SEMO won’t certify the plan.”

Joseph Picciano, acting regional director of the federal agency, said if the state doesn’t submit its report, “we will have to go back to the state and find out why and, at that point, talk to the NRC.”

The decision by the county executives to refuse to certify the plans is a “symbolic gesture” intended to force the federal agencies to get involved in improving the evacuation plans, said Jim Steets, spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns the Indian Point plants.

Orange County’s Diana said that he and his staff read the 550-page analysis of the nuclear emergency plans released Friday by former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, which concluded the plans will not protect the public in an emergency, particularly a fast-breaking crisis caused by a terrorist act.

“Prior to the Witt report,” said Diana, “we have been told by the so-called experts at FEMA and the NRC that everything was fine. Now, we are finding that that is not true, and I am very concerned. Certainly, an event like terrorism was not taken into consideration in the plan and, after 9/11, we know it could happen again.”

“Some plants such as Indian Point may not be able to be operated safely in such a heavily populated area,” he said. “If our questions are not answered, then there may be a point where we will have to call for the closure of the plant.”

Diana said he will confer today with Spano, Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef, and Putnam County Executive Robert Bondi to discuss their responses to the Witt report.

Vanderhoef said he will announce his decision after the conference. The Rockland plan calls for the evacuation of most residents and school children to reception centers in Bergen County, N.J. But Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney said he has directed his staff to explore legal means of forcing the shutdown.

Bondi, however, said he intends to sign. “My feeling,” he said, “is this is a checklist of functions and duties that every county has to perform, and we have hundreds of volunteers who have faithfully executed the functions required, including drills and training seminars.”

Bondi said the evacuation plan does not take terrorism into account, “but there is no preparation or training that can prevent people from running away and fleeing in abject terror following a terrorist attack. We should do our very best to prevent terrorism in all the facilities, which we feel could have a major impact on life in our community. That doesn’t mean closing all the nuclear plants in our country.”

In Washington, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-Harrison, sent a letter to FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh asking him to decertify the emergency plans for Indian Point.

The Witt report, she said in the letter, “confirms that the current evacuation plan is inadequate to protect the public from unacceptable doses of radiation. Denial of Indian Point’s emergency evacuation plan is now essential to protect the nearly 21 million people living near Indian Point.”

And Rep. Eliot Engel, D-Bronx, said “there are too many questions about the effectiveness of the evacuation plan,” and urged Pataki not to approve it.

Earlier in the day, members of the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition, about 50 organizations seeking to close the plants, asked Pataki to refuse to certify the plan.

“We are calling on the governor to shut down immediately the Indian Point nuclear reactors, given the overwhelming evidence that that plant is posing a major risk to Westchester residents and residents throughout the 50-mile New York metropolitan area,” said Alex Matthiessen, executive director of the environmental group Riverkeeper.“

This article originally appeared in the Journal News