New study estimates evacuation from Indian Point emergency would take longer than expected

New information about evacuation time estimates has revealed a timely exodus from a radioactive leak at the Indian Point nuclear power plants might take much longer than last decade’s population statistics suggested.

A 10 percent rise in the population has resulted in a new study that predicts a doubling of the time it would take to evacuate the region, up to 10 hours.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency mandated the study, which was commissioned by Indian Point’s parent company, Entergy. KLD Associates is a large, reputable firm, according to Entergy spokesman Jim Steets, with The Port Authority among their other clients.

KLD Associates was literally out counting cars and polling citizens, Steets said, and they used census numbers to determine the new estimates.

As a result, Westchester Deputy Commissioner of Emergency Services Tony Sutton said the new numbers are much more realistic.

Sheltering in place, Sutton said, has always been one of the many tools available to emergency planners and county executives facing the responsibility of planning a course of action in a fast breaking scenario.

“Sheltering in place has always been standard procedure,” Sutton said.
He added in light of the new estimates, Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano no longer feels he can take care of everyone in an emergency.

“That’s why he feels the plant should be closed,” he said.

The volley over responsibility for emergency preparedness plans has been bouncing back and forth since the four counties around the plant, Westchester, Putnam, Orange and Rockland, refused to sign off on checklists verifying preparedness for an emergency in light of former FEMA Director James Lee Witt’s independent report stated the evacuation plans were not sufficient.

Despite having signed off on similar exercises in the past, the counties focused on the new information and were no longer willing to say they were prepared for a radiological leak at Indian Point. Still, in 1979, after a leak at Three Mile Island, the federal government mandated emergency plans for all nuclear plants in the nation.

The absence of signed checklists and the awareness that an evacuation would take much longer than previously assumed doesn’t change the emergency plans, according to FEMA spokesman Don Jacks. The plans, he said, are still in place, and would be followed in an emergency, though local emergency planners also have the option of sheltering in place.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Association, there are three ways to minimize radiation exposure: distance, which calls for an evacuation, shielding, which doesn’t, and a common sense measure, time, because radiation “loses its strength fairly quickly.”

“The more distance,” FEMA advises, “between you and the source of the radiation, the less radiation you will receive. In a serious nuclear accident, local officials will likely call for an evacuation, thereby increasing the distance between you and the radiation.”

The second way of minimizing exposure advises people to get situated behind dense, heavy materials to block the radiation, because “in some cases, the walls in your home would be sufficient shielding to protect you.”

“This is why local officials could advise you to remain indoors if a radiological accident occurs,” FEMA explains on their website.

“Every incident is different,” Jacks said. “Every incident is looked at depending upon individual circumstances such as plume size, wind direction and speed.

Evacuation is a local decision. The counties have a plan that passed without any deficient marks. That plan will be put into place in the event of a radiological leak.”
He added he has “no idea,” how long it might take before FEMA makes an announcement about whether the plans offer a reasonable assurance of safety to those living in close proximity to the plant.

Riverkeeper attorney Kyle Rabin said FEMA has noted in the past that sheltering in place is not as favorable as an evacuation.

In a report on emergency preparedness at Indian Point dated February 21, 2003, FEMA wrote, “Studies clearly indicate that for all but a very limited set of conditions, prompt evacuation of the area near the plant is much more effective in reducing the risk of early health effects than sheltering the population in the event of severe accidents. In addition, studies have shown that except for very limited conditions, evacuation in a plume is still more effective in reducing health risks than prolonged sheltering near the plant. Therefore, the NRC and FEMA recommend that the population near the plant should be evacuated if possible for actual or projected severe core damage accidents.”

In the event of a radiological leak, Westchester County emergency planners would study information about the incident while Entergy was doing the same.
According to Steets, Entergy would make recommendations to the county about how best to proceed, though the county is free to accept or reject the advice.
Jacks said only those within two miles of the plant would require evacuation. Beyond this tight radius, only those under the radioactive plume would need to hit the road to escape danger.

Indian Point should be viewed as the center of a pie, and “only one slice,” will be affected by a radiological leak, Jacks said, meaning the piece under the plume, “not the entire pie.”

Plumes, Jacks said, are “often not very long from tip to tail,” which makes sheltering in place a viable alternative.

Jacks said the most important aspect of an emergency is for citizens to “obey messages from emergency planners.”

“People may be instructed to run inside and take cover,” Jacks said, “and they should wait for an all-clear from emergency planners. But then the plume will be gone and people might be able to open their windows and doors and go back outside.”

Sheltering in place, according to Steets, has always been “one tool available to local emergency planners.”

Local officials, despite having demonstrated a lack of faith in the plan, would ultimately be responsible for making a decision about whether to evacuate people or tell them to sit tight and take potassium iodide pills to protect their thyroids while children are separated from their parents, at day care or school.

Districts are grappling with the prohibitive cost of stocking supplies and sending out permission slips so parents can permit the administering of potassium iodide.

Riverkeeper has launched a massive ad campaign to raise awareness among New York City’s residents about Indian Point. The ads are turning up on radio and television, in newspapers and on bus stop vestibules around the city.

“Our campaign to close Indian Point will continue until Governor Pataki, and Senators Schumer and Clinton stand up and use their influence to protect the people they were elected to represent,” said Riverkeeper Executive Director Alex Matthiessen.

Steets called the campaign science fiction and said he’s tired of assertions being repeated with no evidence to support them. For example, he said, the spent fuel rod pool situated near the reactors is completely protected and cannot possibly render the state of New York uninhabitable if a nuclear fire spreads from that site.

Experts disagree, saying that if the water protecting the rods is removed, a lethal fire would instantly kill countless people, cause cancer in many more, and prevent citizens from ever returning to contaminated homes.

Every mandate issued by FEMA has been followed to the letter by Entergy, Steets said. Entergy has spent more than 20 million on security enhancements since 9/11, he said, and continues to create new barriers and higher standards based on the threat of terrorism.

“FEMA tells us what the problems are, and we protect the plant,” Steets said, adding he’s confident FEMA will find the emergency preparedness plans adequate.  Jacks said a terrorism drill has never been incorporated into the biennial preparedness tests conducted jointly by FEMA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. September 2004 will mark the first such drill of that kind, Jacks said.

Sutton said FEMA has been unresponsive to local needs, such as requests for more training and resources.”

This article originally appeared in the North County News