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Indian Point evacuation plan inadequate, feds say

The station entrance to the plant area

The station entrance to the plant area "Power Block" at Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Buchanan. (May 9, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

Residents living outside the 10-mile zone around Indian Point and other nuclear power plants could jam evacuation routes, undermining a key premise of emergency plans relied on by county officials in the Hudson Valley and around the country, a new federal report says.

The General Accountability Office report, which reviewed procedures at the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan as well as nuclear power plants near heavily populated regions of Florida, Pennsylvania and California, found that federal regulators did not factor the impact of "shadow evacuations" by residents outside the 10-mile zone into their plans.

In response, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission argued in a letter that its estimate that 20 percent of the population outside the 10-mile zone would evacuate even if not advised to do so was "a reasonable estimate" based on substantial research.

Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for Entergy Corp., the New Orleans-based company that runs Indian Point, said the company is satisfied with its evacuation plans.

"Our current emergency response plan uses NRC estimates already to factor in the possibility that there will be so-called shadow evacuations," he said. "This report suggests the NRC take another look at the methodology used to determine these estimates. We are confident our emergency response plan will work in the unlikely event it is needed."

But Rep. Eliot Engel, a Westchester County Democrat, said he plans to introduce legislation that would tighten up licensing requirements for nuclear power plants.

"I have long argued that it was impossible to safely evacuate the region, should there be a nuclear disaster at Indian Point," he said in an email. "I recall a FEMA/NRC drill from about 10 years ago which used a scenario where there was no traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge to make the plan work. As anyone who has spent any time in the Hudson Valley knows, there is always traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge."

Engel, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he plans to reintroduce a revised version of the Nuclear Disaster Preparedness Act that includes aspects of the GAO report.

"In addition, in the past I have also co-sponsored a bill authored by Rep. Nita Lowey -- the Nuclear Power Licensing Reform Act. The bill would require the same stringent criteria used for licensing new plants to relicensing older ones. This would include vulnerability to terrorist attacks, new seismic data and an ability to evacuate within 50 miles of the facility," he said.

The report comes as the NRC conducts hearings on Entergy's request to extend the licenses of Indian Point's two operating reactors for 20 years. Environmental groups, including Riverkeeper, have been battling the license renewal on several fronts, including the adequacy of evacuation plans.

More than 250,000 people live within Indian Point's 10-mile radius, and millions more live within the 50-mile emergency planning zone, which encompasses New York City.

The plant produces about 25 percent of the electricity used by New York City and Westchester County.

For more than 30 years, community readiness has been based on the belief that evacuation planning isn't needed beyond 10 miles. The GAO, however, found that regulators have never properly studied how many people beyond 10 miles would make their own decisions to take flight.

"Evacuation time estimates may not accurately consider the impact" of such decisions, the GAO said.

Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, disputed the GAO's conclusions. "We disagree with the view that evacuations cannot be safely carried out," he said in an email.

The disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Japan two years ago has heightened concerns about how well U.S. communities can respond to a major release of radiation.

When a tsunami cut off power and nuclear fuel melted, more than 150,000 people fled the Fukushima area, many from well beyond 12 miles, according to Japan's Education Ministry. U.S. officials recommended that Americans in Japan stay 50 miles back.

Under federal rules, U.S. communities practice for evacuation or other protective action by residents only within 10 miles of nuclear plants. States also make plans to limit consumption of contaminated crops, milk and water within 50 miles.

Environmental and anti-nuclear groups have pressed federal regulators to expand planning to 25 miles for evacuation and 100 miles for contaminated food.

About 120 million Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), one of four senators who requested the GAO study, said it suggests "we need to do more to ensure that these residents who live outside of the 10-mile radius have access to and understand evacuation procedures." He said legislation may be needed, but he gave no details.

With The Associated Press

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