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Wednesday September 25, 2002 07:12:04 AM

Drill at Indian Point tests emergency response


(Original publication: September 25, 2002)

HARRISON Scores of government officials and Indian Point engineers worked through a simulated emergency at the Indian Point 2 nuclear power plant yesterday, which began with malfunctioning equipment and ended with a mock radiation leak that would have forced the total evacuation of Putnam County and partial evacuations in Westchester, Rockland and Orange counties.

The phony scenario required state and county officials to react to a series of escalating problems over the course of six hours, shorter than the time it would take a real emergency to unfold. Their directives included the need to mobilize virtually all county services to answer various situations in the emergency, and determine what areas needed to be evacuated and when that should occur.

They did not, however, have to deal with terrorism, major crime or other fast-breaking events, or any impediments to orderly traffic on highways and bridges. The "public" nobody actually took part was compliant. In the simulation, residents evacuated when and where they were ordered, picked up their children when instructed and stayed home when told to do so.

An expert in emergency planning hired by Gov. George Pataki who monitored the drill as part of an evaluation of the emergency response plan said that element of the drill probably was unrealistic.

"The hypothetical scenario with no traffic problems I would not consider a high probability in real circumstances," said James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "You can't get away from the shadow evacuations and the panic effect."

Witt said that in a terrorist attack, when residents probably would panic and flee, officials may not have nearly as much time to prepare for evacuations and traffic flows as they did during yesterday's drill.

"A realistic plan dealing with the possibility of terrorism has to look at every possibility, from the shortest time frame to the longest," he said.

The biannual drill, monitored by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was a graded exercise designed to gauge the ability of plant personnel to confront and control a runaway reactor, as well as their interaction with government officials and the public. Entergy, the plant's owner, is required to be able to pass the test as part of its license requirement with the NRC.

The plant has a long history of difficulty in identifying and correcting problems. It received a yellow finding by the NRC last year after most operators failed their licensing exams. Entergy, which bought the plant last year, has been retraining personnel in an effort to improve the plant's safety rating.

Yesterday's drill also was graded by FEMA, which must certify that the emergency response plan is sound and that the counties can realistically execute its various components.

The drill was closed to most observers except for those at the Joint News Center at Westchester County Airport. FEMA did allow Witt and his staff of 10 observers to monitor activities in the four county emergency centers, the Joint News Center and Indian Point.

Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef said no one should have been concerned. In an actual emergency, the command center would be closed off. The public has never been invited inside during 20 years of drills, he said.

"We strive to constantly improve our plan, and that's why we do these drills," Vanderhoef said. "The willy-nillies out there say the plan can't work. It can. There are always critics of every plan. I don't favor the plant being open. But we must be able to respond if there is a disaster and protect the public."

Pataki, who was in Sleepy Hollow yesterday, said the exception for Witt was "extremely important because we can't simply sit back and just depend on the federal government to give us a proper analysis. We will now have that outside, objective review."

FEMA is to release a preliminary assessment of the drill on Friday.

Between 35 and 40 people participated on Putnam's behalf at Indian Point and at the county's Emergency Operations Center in Carmel, said Mario Rampolla, the county's director of emergency management. He said the county received a short evaluation from FEMA at the center, an informal critique that dealt with operations, command and control, and dose assessment teams.

"In all three of those areas, they said it went well," Rampolla said.

The news center at the airport featured representatives from each county except Orange, and from Indian Point and the State Disaster Preparedness Commission. Orange County was to participate via videoconference, but technicians were unable to make the system work until the exercise was nearly ended. The drill even featured six non-journalists brought in by FEMA to simulate real reporters during press conferences.

The "emergency" began at 8:34 a.m. when a cable bringing power to the plant failed, triggering a shutdown. At that point, the plant's emergency diesel generators should have taken over, but in the simulation two of the three units failed, said Bill Josker, Indian Point's representative at the center.

A public alert was declared, and the counties and state began staffing their emergency operations centers. Rockland was first, opening its center at 9:25, followed by Putnam at 9:28 and Westchester at 9:53. Residents in each county were notified of the alert in the same order.

"We opened it as soon as possible, but there were a lot of department representatives we had to wait for," said Adele Dowling, Westchester's representative at the news center.

Sirens were "sounded" at 10:11, the first of four official warnings, followed three minutes later by official notices on radio, television and county hotlines. The announcements stated there was no danger at the time, and no actions needed to be taken. The public was asked to review emergency booklets to become familiar with what to do if the situation got worse.

The simulated disaster got Rockland's emergency response team rolling at 10:30 a.m, when two utility vehicles carrying Rockland Health Department radiation monitors drove off to Stony Point's Jones Point section, just across the Hudson River from the plant. They were accompanied by state inspectors who were grading their work.

Inspectors also went to the Clarkstown and Stony Point Police departments to check on procedures for traffic control during the evacuation of thousands of people who live within the 10-mile radius of Indian Point.

The monitors checked radiation levels emitted from the plant and, as expected, found the air readings were zero, said Amy Isenberg, an environmental health worker, who read the results from a hand-held monitor. The results were then called into command headquarters. During a real emergency, the monitors would wear protective suits and gloves, and check radiation levels every 15 to 30 minutes.

The words "this is only a drill" were repeated during every broadcast.

Meanwhile, Edward Sparks and Kenneth Moorehead, both long-time Westchester County residents, relaxed on piles of firewood off the Hudson. They said the emergency evacuation plans meant little to them. Moorehead dismissed the plans, while Sparks said they were "just to quiet the public."

Noting the U.S. Coast Guard cutter patrolling in front of the plant, neither man thought a terrorist could successfully maneuver a large airplane into the plant's domes.

"You'd have to be a damn good driver to do that," Sparks said. "They'd probably hit the overhead lines first."

As the "emergency" escalated, Entergy declared the third level of alert at 11:26 a.m., prompting county executives to close parks and radiation monitoring teams to head to areas within five miles of the Buchanan site. The wind was blowing from the southwest at more than 10 miles per hour, and spreading out rather than adhering to the steep Hudson River valley.

When the counties sounded a second siren alert, one or two sirens "failed" in each county. In those cases, police were sent to alert area residents.

The counties opened their emergency evacuation shelters, and the Coast Guard closed the Hudson from the Tappan Zee Bridge to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. Though radiation had yet to be "released," mock evacuations were ordered for people within two miles of the plant in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties, and within five miles in a narrow band in Orange County in the path of the wind.

Residents elsewhere in the counties were urged to "shelter in place" to close their windows and turn off their air conditioners. Westchester began "moving" children from the Hendrick Hudson, Lakeland, Peekskill and Croton-Harmon school districts.

Rockland began a mock evacuation of students from the northern part of the county to Rockland Community College in Ramapo at 11:42. In Putnam, evacuation centers were opened in Carmel and Brewster, and a partial evacuation was ordered.

Officials at the news center denied "rumors" of a meltdown at the plant and the spread of radiation.

By 1:54 p.m., Entergy declared a general emergency, the highest level of alert, but the information was not made public for another hour. Officials said the release occurred during their previous press conference, and they had not been informed.

At that point, officials who had assured the public there was no danger had to reverse course, widen the evacuation and announce there was a radiation release from an unknown leak. At Indian Point, engineers tried to locate and repair a broken seal allowing radiation to escape.

Putnam officials ordered a complete evacuation of their county, and Rockland's expansion included most of that county. Westchester began evacuating the Yorktown school district and expanded its general evacuation and bus pickups.

An hour later, the repairs were completed at Indian Point, and the simulation ended.

Send e-mail to Roger Witherspoon

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