Indian Point evacuation questioned by critics
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The Indian Point nuclear power plant is under a spotlight as it seeks a 20-year license extension for its two reactors in Buchanan: Critics point not only at seismic faults, densely packed fuel rods and leaks of radioactive water, but the viability of evacuating up to 400,000 people -- a population the size of Miami's -- from the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone in 10 hours, as called for in the latest emergency plan.
Whether the emergency plan is workable or a detailed Hail Mary hinges on the wild card of human nature, experts say.
"There's an assumption that people will respond, which is not necessarily the case," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "First responders are worried about their personal safety and the safety of their families. That also goes for the bus drivers."
For Indian Point, engineers at KLD Associates in Commack, L.I., fed traffic-pattern data into computers to spin a network simulating cars and trucks interacting on roads.
Those patterns, however, rely on the actions of bus drivers, police officers, firefighters, teachers, nurses, caregivers and prison guards. Bus drivers, for instance, might have to head into a radiological hot zone to transport people.
Leonard Bernstein, coordinator of transportation and emergency management for the North Rockland Central School District, would muster buses to transport students to Rockland Community College in Viola. Bernstein said he is confident in his drivers, many of whom have relatives in the schools. "They'll come," he said flatly. But because the district transports students in four shifts, Coach USA and other contractors would be summoned to add capacity.
Caregivers might be asked to wait with the elderly or infirm. Guards at Sing Sing prison in Ossining would be required to "shelter in place" with the inmates. All would be expected to carry out their professional duties even if their own children, parents or spouses also were inside the zone.
Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for New Orleans-based Entergy, which operates Indian Point, noted that Sept. 11 first responders ventured to lower Manhattan despite the danger. Nevertheless, some of the region's top cops joined in questioning how their officers would respond. In a 256-page 2003 study of Indian Point emergency preparedness for Gov. George Pataki's administration, consultants conferred with the Rockland Police Chiefs Association and found "disagreement on the willingness of officers to report for duty."
Bottleneck at escape routes
On May 29, Indian Point's operator, Entergy, got a boost in its application to extend the reactors' licenses when the NRC granted a 20-year extension to another Entergy facility, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass.
Among those opposing an extension is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who cites the evacuation challenge. The elephant in the room is the plant's location -- about 41 miles north of Times Square, the center of a metropolitan area with 17 million people. Officials of Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess counties might order the evacuation of all or part of the population in the 10-mile zone, but should the broader population decide to flee -- a phenomenon called a "shadow evacuation" -- the process would be vastly more complicated.
"Those who think that people who live 12 miles, 15 miles, 20 miles away aren't going to be evacuated are just kidding themselves," Redlener said. In the case of the March 11 accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the NRC itself recommended that Americans in the area move 50 miles away.
Even if the evacuation is confined to the 10-mile zone, "the logistics of evacuating as large a population as in Indian Point is not feasible on any level," Redlener said. "Indian Point is located in the most densely populated area of any nuclear plant in the nation. The logistical questions not answered have to do with inadequate roadways that would be used for an evacuation."
In particular, he said, two Hudson River spans, the seven-lane Tappan Zee Bridge and the two-lane Bear Mountain Bridge, would be choke points.
"The problem in the specific area around Indian Point is a big river just to the west of the plant," Redlener said, referring to the Hudson River. "You've already eliminated entirely one egress."
Success written in the wind
Nappi, however, contends that accidents like the partial nuclear meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three-Mile Island plant and the Fukushima release unfolded in the course of hours or days, allowing time for residents to evacuate.
Brian Wolshon, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Louisiana State University, said traffic engineers create a network in the computer including roads, intersections, stop signs and traffic signals for simulation models. "Then we load the evacuees on the network," he said.
Variables might include time of day, day of week and time of year. All that could be further complicated, he said, if, for example, parents try to pick up their children at school instead of letting them be bused to a reception area. Moreover, roads are sure to suffer gridlock when nearly the entire population is fleeing.
"You can never count on a simulation model to be 100 percent correct," Wolshon said. "The goal of those time estimates isn't to minimize clearance time; it's to try to get as realistic a forecast of clearance time as possible."
Another variable involves the direction of the wind, which could carry a radioactive plume away from the plant.
"That's something that changes constantly," said David Stark, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. "To say there's a climatological wind direction, that's a tough one."
Even if the wind blows in one direction, delays in issuing evacuation orders could put the population at risk. On Sept. 5, 2002, during a security exercise at Indian Point, a simulated radioactive plume was released at 1:46 p.m. Within 31 minutes, the leading edge, moving at 12 mph, was five miles away. The "radioactive" plume advanced, but human decision makers lagged. Instructions to evacuate people in the zone five miles from the plant eventually were issued, but not until 40 minutes after the plume had arrived.
And even then, official directives may have limited impact.
Said Redlener, "There's no way the population is going to comply with the timing and details of an evacuation plan."