July 1, 2001
L.A. Loves a Loophole
There's no getting around it...
For Want of a Nail: Emergency Preparedness at Indian Point
The issues facing Entergy's nuclear plant are fixable. Why shut it down?
What happens when law, technology, and politics collide? It's anyone's guess.
On May 2 the Federal Emergency Management Agency is scheduled to make a report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that may well determine whether Entergy's Indian Point nuclear plant, whose two reactors have been supplying the least costly 20 percent of New York City's electricity for two decades, continues to operate.
The bottom-line finding of FEMA's report on the status of offsite radiological emergencies preparedness for the plant will turn on whether New York state and the four counties in the 10-mile radius Emergency Planning Zone around the plant have submitted to FEMA certain updated information, recertifying their participation in offsite emergency preparedness. With a favorable FEMA finding, the plant continues to operate; without it, the plant goes onto a down-ramp to shutdown.
Indian Point, located 35 miles north of New York City, has the highest surrounding population of any nuclear plant in the country (300,000 people within the 10-mile emergency planning zone [EPZ]) and a chronic abundance of opponents. Opponents fanned post-9/11 unease about the effects of terrorism. As a result, New York Gov. George Pataki last summer commissioned James L. Witt, director of FEMA during the Clinton administration, to prepare a report on offsite radiological emergency preparedness for the plant. The final version, issued March 7, finds the current state of offsite emergency preparedness at Indian Point to be inadequate in an environment that includes terrorist threats.
Opponents immediately seized on the Witt report's finding to call for shutdown. A spokesman for Riverkeeper, one of the best-funded and most voluble long-term opponents of the plant, was reported in the March 8 New York Times as saying, "Witt's findings are clear. The evacuation plans are inadequate and the plan is unfixable given the new threats we face."
This response, however, is as revealing as it is inaccurate. First, as the Witt report's 500 pages (and its 68 pages of detailed responses to comments) recognize, emergency preparedness is a much more comprehensive matter than simply its hot-button component: immediate general evacuation. It is an integrated process involving the utility that operates the plant and governments at all levels. Planning is done iteratively over years, and plans are tested in biennial exercises. Response measures include a mix of strategies including sheltering in place, potential use of potassium iodide, and selective evacuation, as well as general evacuation, depending on timing and circumstances. Focusing solely on the doomsday hypothetical of immediate mass evacuation may be a good scare tactic, but it's not emergency planning.
Second, the Witt report simply does not assert that the Indian Point offsite plans-prepared by each of the four surrounding counties (Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Westchester) in the 10-mile EPZ, and by the state for the 50-mile EPZ-are "unfixable," or even inadequate under current legal standards. It does raise numerous good-practice issues, primarily involving improving coordination among the counties, and updates certain analyses and equipment used by planners and