Edward McGaffigan, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, must live in a fantasy world of unrivaled proportion. What else explains the top NRC official’s rose-colored assessment this week regarding Indian Point nuclear power plant? He told The Journal News in an interview that the commission’s five members had seen little so far to indicate that emergency plans for Indian Point could not provide “reasonable assurance” that the public would be protected in the event of a plant emergency.

That early assessment tends to strain incredulity and invite skepticism of the government’s oversight, given mounting evidence pointing to a contrary conclusion — or at the very least calling into question long-held assumptions about contingencies, chiefly those concerning the evacuation of millions of people.

McGaffigan’s opinion is important: His panel is, as McGaffigan puts it, the “ultimate judge as to whether a plant needs to be shut down or whether the (emergency) plan gets fixed.”

Hope is that the full NRC panel will be more circumspect when it finally passes on the adequacy of contingencies for the plant, which is based in Buchanan. The region’s future, quite frankly, could rest on the NRC’s making a thoughtful, intelligent determination.

In January, former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt released a report commissioned by Gov. George Pataki concluding that emergency evacuation plans for the 10-mile area surrounding Indian Point would not work, particularly in the event of an emergency sparked by terrorism.

That report prompted Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Orange counties to withhold their annual certifications of the emergency plans. The state Emergency Management Office also refused to certify the plans. Against this backdrop, FEMA is conducting an unprecedented review of the contingencies. Indian Point’s neighbors total some 20 million people.

There was additional grist this week for those who are skeptical of the emergency plans — fears heightened by the realization that one of the Sept. 11 terrorist jets flew past Indian Point enroute to the World Trade Center, and solidified by everyday, and increasing, battles with nightmarish traffic.

A study commissioned by Entergy Nuclear Northeast, owner of Indian Point, found that it would take nine hours and 25 minutes to evacuate the 10-mile zone around the plant; that’s nearly twice as long as the determination in a 1994 study — a review criticized for assuming that fear-stricken people would stay home and wait until told when and how to evacuate.

The newly released review, called “comprehensive and thorough” by Entergy, also concluded that it would take as many as 11 hours to evacuate a wider region — an interstate beltway stopping at Interstate 87 to the west, Interstate 287 to the south, Interstate 684 to the east and Interstate 84 to the north. Indian Point critics contend that the figure hardly reflects likely reality.

“This study is worse than the last one (in 1984),” Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, D-Greenburgh, told Journal News staff reporter Roger Witherspoon. “. . . (T)his report assumes no one in Greenburgh or Yonkers will do anything. No one in New York City will do anything. No one in New Jersey or Connecticut will move either. They all stay home.”

McGaffigan, meanwhile, said his statutory responsibility was to determine if there was “reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety. Many of our critics, I believe, carry in their head a standard of absolute assurance. That is not what the standard is.” In the event of a mishap, he noted, some people will die.

No reasonable person disputes that reality. And no sensible regulator, be it FEMA or the NRC, would ignore real-world conditions or behavior when considering the future of Indian Point.“

This editorial originally appeared in the Journal News