Watchdog Group Says Evacuation Planning Around Indian Point Is Bare Bones

Apr 24, 2015

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

Emergency planning and public education related to a radiological incident at the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester County is inadequate. That’s according to a report from a non-profit watchdog group now calling on the public and local governments to include such planning beyond federal requirements.

The report is from the Maryland-based Disaster Accountability Project, a watchdog of disaster relief and humanitarian aid that launched after Hurricane Katrina. The report was prompted by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and looks at emergency planning surrounding five nuclear power plants near major metropolitan areas – in Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and Virginia. The fifth is in New York, at Indian Point. Ben Smilowitz is executive director of the Disaster Accountability Project.

“And so we really kind of expected the results that we found. But we needed to find them in order to make our point. And our point is that jurisdictions are not planning beyond the barebones 10-miles minimum,” says Smilowitz. “And the NRC was off base in its statement that there is sufficient planning surrounding nuclear power plants.”

Federal regulations require jurisdictions within 10-mile emergency planning zones of U.S. nuclear power plants to develop evacuation protocols for responding to radiological incidents, and to provide to residents living within these zones annual information on radiation and protective actions should an emergency occur. Spokesman Neil Sheehan says it’s a zone the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deems sufficient.

“We believe that the 10-mile radius zone is very protective of public health and safety, that basically if there were to be a severe accident at a plant, the greatest impact would be expected in the immediate vicinity of the plant,” says Sheehan.

The NRC last year denied a petition to expand the 10-mile emergency zone.

“There could be situations where there are evacuations called for beyond that zone,” says Sheehan. “But we believe that emergency planners are positioned to be able to implement those actions if necessary.”

Smilowitz says when it comes to planners outside the required zone, his report shows otherwise. He says that only four of the 24 jurisdictions within 50 miles of Indian Point provided information about shadow evacuation planning. Shadow evacuations refer to voluntary evacuations beyond the 10-mile radius.

“Do you think only 1 out of 5 people within 15 miles, between 10 and 15 miles, of Indian Point would voluntarily evacuate or is everyone getting out of Dodge? And my guess is that everyone’s going to leave. Or as many people that can with a car, if they hear about a problem at Indian Point via text message or Twitter or the news, will probably get up and go,” Smilowitz says. “And that will create a major havoc for emergency planners trying to get the people within 10 miles out.”

Sheehan says the NRC looked at shadow evacuations and found that in few situations did such evacuations impede the ability to evacuate people within the 10-mile emergency zone.

Between July 2013 and May 2014, Smilowitz’s group surveyed 24 cities and counties in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania within 50 miles of Buchanan-based Indian Point, seeking documents and information related to radiological preparedness, including evacuation planning, via Freedom of Information Act requests. Jerry Nappi is spokesman for Indian Point’s parent Entergy Nuclear.

“It’s an analysis that involves Indian Point yet they didn’t reach out to us or incorporate data that we could have shared with them to demonstrate why 10 miles is an appropriate planning zone,” says Nappi.

He adds:

“And even the most recent studies, which were done within the last couple of years at Sandia National Labs, demonstrate that 10 miles is an appropriate radius for an emergency planning zone,” Nappi says.

Nappi says Indian Point’s emergency planning program accounts for shadow evacuations. Smilowitz says his group does not categorically oppose nuclear power plants. He also recognizes that local governments are cash-strapped. However, Smilowitz hopes his report shines a light on what he says is a hole in emergency planning.

“This is less of a pointing fingers exercise than trying to get the public aware of what’s going on, trying to get the public to call on their local county and municipal and local jurisdiction officials and say, hey, we know you don’t have to, we know Washington’s probably not going to mandate it, but you can anyway,” says Smilowitz. “And if enough people ask for it, then their elected officials should respond positively.”

The day the Disaster Accountability Project released its report, U.S. Senator from New York Kirsten Gillibrand called for emergency planning for Indian Point beyond the required 10-mile radius. Her call came during a U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on the president’s fiscal year 2016 budget request for the NRC.