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Saturday September 28, 2002 10:16:46 AM

Indian Point evacuation drill gets high marks


(Original publication: September 28, 2002)

HARRISON Federal emergency and nuclear regulatory officials said a drill conducted Tuesday of emergency response plans for Indian Point 2 showed that the public could be safely evacuated or sheltered in the event of a real nuclear disaster at the power plant.

Although the simulated emergency drafted by Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which owns Indian Point in Buchanan, was similar to those used in previous years, officials said the response plans would work even if terrorists attacked the plant and radiation were released in an hour, instead of over several hours or days.

"The issue for us is whether control room operators and plant officials take the proper steps in an emergency so proper decisions can be made by county and state officials," said Brian Holian, director of reactor projects for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "They demonstrated the ability to do that, and we are confident they could do that if the timeline were one hour or a lot more than that. The bottom line is that this exercise continues to support a finding that in a radiological emergency, there is a reasonable assurance that they could act to protect the public health and safety."

The six-hour drill was conducted by the state and Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Orange counties. It was overseen by monitors from the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which publicly released their preliminary review of the drill yesterday at the Joint News Center at Westchester County Airport. Officials earlier held a closed morning briefing for state and county emergency officials, who have 10 days to present FEMA with explanations or other documents supporting their version of events.

Joe Picciano, FEMA's regional director, said all critical protective actions were taken in a timely manner Tuesday by officials at the command centers run by each county. Nonetheless, he said, there were a number of mistakes made by each county.

Rockland County, he said, did not notify Bergen County, N.J., that evacuated students and residents were heading toward Bergen shelters. Though nobody was really evacuated most events outside Indian Point involved phone calls between officials Picciano said, "There could be problems if children showed up, and they weren't prepared" in a real emergency.

Dan Greeley, Rockland's assistant director of fire and emergency services, said the county would dispute that assessment.

"The evaluators made a mistake on this one," he said.

Putnam County, Picciano said, did not take proper radiation readings; Orange County did not have a "workable" evacuation plan for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, its largest population center in the evacuation zone; and in Westchester County, "there was confusion in reporting which could have created concern with parents."

The most significant mistakes were made at the Joint News Center, where information is to be shared with the media and the public. County, state and Indian Point representatives held a simulated press conference Tuesday at which they reported there had not been a release of radioactivity when, in fact, radiation had begun "escaping" from Indian Point five minutes earlier. An hour after the press conference, county representatives announced that radiation had been seeping out of the plant for more than an hour and that a wider evacuation had been ordered.

Greeley said that in the event of a real emergency, that kind of mistake could damage the government's credibility and create a panic among residents that could seriously affect the evacuation.

"We are concerned about the Joint News Center, and obviously, things will have to be changed over there," Greeley said. "The last thing you ever want to do is lose credibility. We need to sit down and see what went wrong."

"This was a timing problem due to the fact that this was a drill with an artificial timeline," said Susan Tolchin, chief adviser to Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano. "But we will look into that. The bottom line, however, is that in the command center and out in the field, the proper decisions were made and executed to protect the public health and safety. That's what's important."

As federal officials released their preliminary assessment yesterday, critics of the emergency response plans reiterated their concerns about the plans, the drill itself and the federal agencies for not ordering a simulation that specifically took a terrorist scenario into account.

"This was a genteel cover-up," said state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, D-Greenburgh. "(Westchester was) a county where we were hoping for a fair drill, and we didn't get that. They were afraid to present an accurate finding from what they saw. Instead, there was an iron curtain of secrecy around the drill."

Alex Matthiessen, director of the environmental group Riverkeeper, which has been seeking to close the nuclear plants, said the drill was unrealistic because the radiation "release" into the environment occurred over several hours, while a successful terrorist attack would leave as little as an hour to get people to safety.

"It is astonishing that a year after 9/11, you guys refuse to acknowledge the real problems we may have to face," Matthiessen said during the briefing. "I am not sure how you sleep at night, glossing over the concerns of this community for this plan, which succeeded based on your scenario while ignoring a real-life scenario."

Picciano said his agency and the NRC were working to develop new scenarios, "because it is important that county and state officials understand changes that may have to be made in the new environment." Future drills, he said, would reflect possible terrorist scenarios.

Tuesday's drill involved no real evacuations, street closings or participation by the public, hospitals or other institutions. Decisions made at the county command centers were observed only by members of James Lee Witt Associates, a consulting firm brought in by Gov. George Pataki to study the emergency response plans.

County and state emergency officials had to react to an escalating crisis by taking a number of actions, including ordering evacuations, rerouting traffic, and mobilizing health monitors to take radiation readings.

FEMA is accepting public comment on the drill through Oct. 27. It will then send a draft evaluation of the drill to the counties and state, which will get 30 days to respond to any criticisms or recommendations. A final evaluation by FEMA will come 30 days later.

Send e-mail to Roger Witherspoon

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