“There’s no magic number, of course. Is it perilous at 10 miles away, but not 11? Is there an evacuation zone that would be a one-size-fits-all plan for any nuclear disaster? You don’t need a physics degree to answer those questions.
But we do know that American officials have told citizens of the United States to stay at least 50 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan as the nuclear crisis continues.
In the case of a comparable disaster here, this is what a 50-mile circle around the Indian Point nuclear plant on the Hudson River in Westchester County would look like: past Kingston in Ulster County to the north; past Bayonne and Elizabeth, N.J., to the south; almost to New Haven in the east; and into Pennsylvania to the west. It includes almost all of New York City except for Staten Island; almost all of Nassau County and much of Suffolk; all of Bergen County, N.J.; all of Fairfield, Conn.
Try evacuating that on short — or long — notice.
“Many scholars have already argued that any evacuation plans shouldn’t be called plans, but rather ‘fantasy documents,’ ” Daniel P. Aldrich, a professor of political science at Purdue University and the author of “Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West,” said in an e-mail. They are often bureaucratic documents meant to meet policy requirements, not to work in the real world, he added.
FANTASY or not, the nuclear accident in Japan is putting renewed attention on exactly how to protect or evacuate the population around Indian Point, 35 miles from Midtown Manhattan in the most populous part of the country, with population of almost 20 million people in the metropolitan region. And in the end, the future of Indian Point, which is facing renewed calls that it be shut down, is not a referendum on nuclear power. It’s a question of whether this nuclear plant at this site makes sense.
Of course, there’s no universal standard for evacuations, and no simple template for people’s personal comfort zones. France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and the disaster in Japan does not seem to have created a huge backlash against nuclear power there. But it has renewed questions about Indian Point’s safety — whether from an earthquake, a terrorist attack, another natural disaster like a hurricane and resulting storm surges, or something as unanticipated as the hijacked plane that flew over it on Sept. 11, 2001.
Indian Point’s evacuation plans focus on a 10-mile ring populated by about 300,000 people. Twenty miles out, roughly the area of highest concern identified by Japanese authorities, includes almost a million people. A 50-mile evacuation plan does not exist and is hard to imagine.
The most in-depth analysis of the evacuation planning for Indian Point was a 256-page report commissioned by Gov. George E. Pataki and completed in 2003 by a firm headed by James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It concluded that the plans were drafted to comply with regulations rather than to create an effective strategy to protect the population, and that they assumed people would comply with government directives rather than do what seemed to be in their own best interests.
Citing these and other concerns, the report said: “It is our conclusion that current radiological response system and capabilities are not adequate to overcome their combined weight and protect the people from an unacceptable dose of radiation in the event of a release from Indian Point.”
Jim Steets, a spokesman for Indian Point, said evacuation and emergency preparedness planning was being constantly refined and that the nuclear industry expected to adapt and to learn lessons from the disaster in Japan. “You have a nuclear industry that prides itself on learning lessons,” he said.
Both Entergy, which owns Indian Point, and Steven Chu, the federal secretary of energy, have announced reviews of the plant in response to the disaster in Japan.
But asked repeatedly whether the government’s 50-mile zone could possibly be observed in the event of a comparable event here, Mr. Steets declined to answer. “I don’t think you can automatically say you would have the same situation or you could extrapolate from one situation to the other,” he said.
No operating American plant has ever been shut down because of the lack of an acceptable evacuation plan. But you don’t have to look far to find how critical the issue can be: The Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island was completed and then shut down without producing any commercial electric power after representatives of Mario M. Cuomo, then the governor of New York, declined to certify its evacuation plan. Last week, another Governor Cuomo called Indian Point too big a risk to remain open.”
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