renews evacuation debate
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: June 19, 2003)
The massive traffic jams triggered by Tuesday's three-hour
shutdown of the Tappan Zee Bridge renewed debate yesterday
among residents and officials over the ability to safely
evacuate the region in the event of a catastrophic accident or
attack at the Indian Point nuclear power plants.
Critics contend the commuter nightmare — initiated by one
man's suicide attempt from the top of the bridge — illustrates
how easily major arteries can be rendered inoperable, thereby
preventing any evacuation plan from working effectively.
Federal Emergency Management Agency and Indian Point officials
contend that existing emergency plans are flexible enough to
handle such a situation.
"The plan provides alternatives as to where the officials
would move people," FEMA spokesman Mike Beeman said. "It takes
them through all the major roadways and shows them what the
Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano, who in recent
months has been pushing to have the plants closed, said the
plans work "if we have enough time and there are no
"However, that's not taking sabotage into account, and you
don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure this out," Spano
continued. "There are all kinds of scenarios that could impede
an evacuation if there was a purposeful effort by terrorists
to do that.
"Our preparation deals with accidental incidents and has
never dealt with terrorist scenarios at major or multiple
points outside the plant," he said. "It makes the plant
dangerous and the plan unworkable under certain circumstances,
and no one can deny that."
Spano will speak about Westchester's emergency plan and
related Indian Point issues at a forum beginning at 7 tonight
in the Croton-on-Hudson Municipal Building, 1 Van Wyck St. The
forum is sponsored by the Croton Close Indian Point group.
The effectiveness of emergency plans for the region has
been a focus of concern since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks. Critics say the plans are unrealistic and assume
people will wait their turn to evacuate and leave in an
orderly manner as directed by officials. That position was
bolstered by a report released in January by former FEMA
director James Lee Witt, whom Gov. George Pataki hired in the
fall to evaluate the plans for Westchester, Rockland, Putnam
and Orange counties. Witt said that because of a dense
population and limited infrastructure, the region could not be
safely evacuated following a terrorist attack at the plants.
The report prompted Spano and the other county executives
to refuse to sign previously routine, annual certifications of
the emergency plans for FEMA. The State Emergency Management
Office, citing the counties' actions, refused to certify the
plans as well. Indian Point is required by the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission to have emergency evacuation plans for
the 10-mile region around the complex as a condition of its
The Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA,
is evaluating the plans to determine if they should be
certified as effective, despite the objections of the county
executives. If the agency denies certification, it begins a
lengthy process that could lead to the plants' closure.
"The unfortunate incident on the Tappan Zee Bridge
indicates it only takes one person to tie up traffic for
hours," said Marilyn Elie, head of the Westchester Citizens
Awareness Network. "All of our major roadways are very fragile
when it comes to a deliberate attempt by a determined group of
individuals. Route 9 and Route 17 go through many small towns
with gas stations and industries, and an attack on any of
these would tie up traffic and make it utterly impossible to
Supporters of the plans insist they are flexible enough to
encompass any situation, including the shutdown of major
Beeman said that if there were an emergency at Indian Point
"not everyone has to be evacuated."
"The radiation plume travels with the wind, and you only
have to move the population where the plume is headed," Beeman
said. "As long as the population listens to the leadership,
then you won't have everybody on the roadways and you won't
have mass evacuations.
"There has been this hysteria based on misrepresentation
that if there is an event at Indian Point it will irradiate
everything within a 10-mile area," he said. "But that is not
the case. Radiation will always travel with the wind.
Emergency planners will look at where the wind is headed and
these are the only people who have to be moved."
Jim Steets, spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which
owns the plants in Buchanan, said that though emergency plans
and drills have not included scenarios in which terrorists
shut down major roadways, they were not necessary.
"You don't have to have that kind of detail in a plan,"
Steets said. "We aren't talking about robots who are
programmed to do specific things and if you throw a wrench
into the works the whole thing breaks down. We are talking
about people who can make judgments and decisions. They will
use their experience and God-given smarts and compensate one
way or another."
Send e-mail to Roger Witherspoon