“The New York Times, Westchester


AMERICANS were rightly angered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s inept response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster and alarmed by the chaotic evacuation of Houston before Hurricane Rita in which as many as 2.5 million people were stranded on highways that had become parking lots.

Those colossal planning failures should prompt a re-examination of the agency’s assurances about the workability of the emergency plan for the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which is about 35 miles from Times Square. An investigation is all the more appropriate since the authorities who approved Indian Point’s emergency plan are Joe Allbaugh and Michael Brown, two of the discredited bureaucrats responsible for the agency’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

Before 9/11, the agency identified a terrorist attack on New York and a hurricane in New Orleans as two of the most likely disasters facing our nation. Any credible list of possible terrorist targets in New York would include Indian Point, which the 9/11 commission report revealed may have been on the original hit list for the 2001 attacks. Moreover, casual observation of the power plant, buttressed by various government and company reports, demonstrate that Indian Point is virtually undefended against an attack by water or air.

Despite these vulnerabilities, the agency has ignored overwhelming evidence that Indian Point’s emergency evacuation plan won’t work.

Indian Point’s license requires its owners to demonstrate that there is a workable evacuation plan in place. In an exhaustive 270-page report on Indian Point’s emergency preparedness, James Lee Witt, a former FEMA director, criticized virtually every aspect of the plan and concluded that Indian Point’s disaster response system was not adequate to protect the public from radiation releases from Indian Point.

Mr. Witt said that Indian Point’s emergency plan does “not consider the possible ramifications of a terrorist caused event.” He emphasized that an evacuation caused by a terrorist attack would be impossible given the area’s congested roads, population density and the near certainty that New Yorkers far outside the 10-mile evacuation zone would try to flee, thus confounding the evacuation of people closer to the plant. It doesn’t take an expert to know that few of the 20 million people living within a 50-mile radius of the plant are going to wait around for officials to tell them if they and their families could be exposed to radiation. Not before Hurricane Katrina, not now, not ever.

With the exception of FEMA, nearly everyone who has investigated Indian Point’s emergency evacuation plan has concluded that it does not work and cannot be made to work. This includes most of the government officials and more than 200 first responders – police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, school teachers and hospital workers – charged with executing the plan. Three of the four county governments (Orange, Rockland and Westchester) and the State of New York have refused to certify the plan is adequate to protect public health and safety. More than 400 politicians – including 11 members of Congress – and 500 local businesses have called for the plant’s closing, citing, among other things, Indian Point’s patently unworkable emergency plan.

Yet, in 2003, despite overwhelming evidence that the plan was fatally flawed, Mr. Allbaugh and Mr. Brown approved it, prompting Sue Kelly, a Republican congresswoman from Westchester, to accuse the agency of “bureaucratic rubber stamping in its most grotesque and dangerous form.”

Last year, in response to an outcry from the public and politicians, FEMA promised to improve its biennial drill assessing emergency preparedness by subjecting Indian Point to a mock terrorist attack. But the agency, which assumed the mock scenario would not result in a release of radiation, might as well have been testing emergency preparedness at a local shopping mall.

In a September 2002 drill in which the hapless plan passed with practically flying colors, one of the agency’s few suggestions for improvement was to deploy more toll booth operators on Interstate 87 to handle increased traffic. As if New Yorkers are going to stop and pay a toll as they’re fleeing a nuclear disaster!

It seems that, in approving Indian Point’s absurd plans for evacuation, Mr. Brown has placed the same kind of bet that caused the government’s fiasco in New Orleans – in this case a hope that Indian Point will not suffer an accident or terrorist attack on this administration’s watch.

Now that Mr. Allbaugh and Mr. Brown are gone, New York’s leaders from both political parties should demand a rescission of Indian Point’s emergency plan approval and an independent investigation into FEMA’s unsubstantiated decision to certify what the rest of us know is a bad joke.

Alex Matthiessen is the Hudson Riverkeeper and president of Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group.”