20 Million at Risk from Terror Attack by Air
By Roger Witherspoon
The Journal News (Westchester County, NY)
October 14, 2001 Sunday
The Journal News
A catastrophic terrorist attack on the nuclear power plants at Indian Point could
leave more than 20 million people in a 50-mile radius trying to flee lethal radioactive
clouds without clear guidance from federal and state emergency officials.
A meltdown of the nuclear fuel and a fire at the two plants, 24 miles north of New
York City on the Hudson River's eastern bank, would affect all of New York City as
well as Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange, Sullivan, Ulster, Dutchess, Nassau
and Suffolk counties. In New Jersey, Bergen, Passaic, Sussex, Hudson and Essex
counties would be threatened. So would Fairfield County and parts of New Haven
County in Connecticut, and eastern Pennsylvania around the Delaware Water Gap.
Though Nassau and Suffolk counties are outside the 50-mile zone, their 2.7 million
residents would be cut off on the eastern end of the 120-mile Long Island unless
they fled through New York City to New Jersey, or through Westchester to New
All would have to travel a limited number of bridges and roadways to leave in a
matter of hours.
"An evacuation could not work around New York for that kind of radioactive release,"
said Paul Leventhal, head of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C. "The
kind of panic that would result from people deciding whether to flee or seek shelter
should be avoided. It would make the response to the World Trade Center look like a
"There is no way we can evacuate this region if there is a nuclear emergency here,"
Westchester County Legislator Thomas Abinanti, D-Greenburgh, said last week,
following a security briefing with other state and county officials at Indian Point by
Entergy Corp., the plants' owner. "We try to evacuate White Plains every day, and
the infrastructure is so limited that we are choked with traffic during a normal rush
Gov. George Pataki yesterday ordered National Guard troops to begin protecting
Indian Point and the state's other nuclear power plants.
For decades, federal officials, nuclear power operators and emergency planners
believed that the prospect of destroyed containment buildings, a runaway nuclear
meltdown and fire was too remote for which to realistically plan.
They planned, instead, for the possible need to evacuate people within one mile
around the plants' site in Buchanan, and up to 10 miles within the direction that wind
would carry radioactive particles. This "Ingestion Emergency Pathway Zone" or IPZ,
is all planners believed they needed to prepare.
The plan depends on an orderly withdrawal, with school and public buses making
repeated trips to Westchester to remove children and others from the affected area
over several hours.
Only since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has the
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledged that the huge, reinforced
concrete containment domes around American nuclear reactors are not designed to
withstand the impact of a hit by modern, wide-bodied jets. The attacks also showed
the plants' vulnerability, as both jets that slammed into the Twin Towers flew south
along the Hudson River, directly above or not far from IP2.
Current emergency evacuation plans are not designed to handle the result of such a
terrorist action, and only envision the release of a radioactive cloud over a short time
The plans do not envision a destroyed containment building, a nuclear reactor
meltdown or a prolonged fire that would spew radioactive particles into the
atmosphere for weeks, like the one that engulfed the Ukrainian nuclear plant at
Chernobyl in April 1986. That left a permanent lethal zone of contamination around
the city for 50 miles. Winds and waterways also deposited long-lasting radioactive
material hundreds of miles away.
American emergency plans for nuclear accidents do not contemplate the need to
move the public from such a wide region, as would be necessary in New York. The
plans assume residents will wait patiently in their homes for instructions and follow
directions to move out of the path of wind-borne radiation.
"Our evacuation plans are for a 10-mile zone," said Don Mauer of the New York State
Emergency Management Office. "There are no detailed evacuation plans for the miles
10 through 50. The public is notified within the areas that require evacuation. We
have the police to establish traffic control points for an orderly flow of people out of
If radiation should spread, he said, "Those folks would be notified by public
announcement that they have to leave the area."
The state's plans envision orderly, controlled evacuations from individual segments
within the 10-mile zone around the plants. Those regions would depend on the
prevailing winds at the time of the accident.
Nowhere do the plans contemplate the widespread movement of millions of people
fleeing the uncontrolled release of radiation over several days, traveling in several
"There has long been discussion in the emergency management community as to
whether or not you could evacuate New York," said William Waugh, professor of
public administration and urban studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
"That's particularly true of places like Manhattan, where you have limited access to
bridges and tunnels. How do you move so many people in New York who don't have
automobiles and rely on mass transportation? It could injure more people than you
It would be difficult to maintain order, Waugh said, even though the existing plans
depend on it.
"There has been talk about fear management," he said, "and how do you contain a
population at risk when you want to keep them quarantined and want to avoid panic?
In a panic response, a lot of people would be injured trying to get out of the area. I
imagine it is not possible to evacuate that many people."
Critics of the NRC, which regulates the nuclear industry's actions during an accident,
and other emergency management agencies have long disputed the planned cutoff
at 10 miles.
"I don't think the basis for the 10-mile zone was quantitatively linked to anything,"
said Ed Lymann, a physicist and scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute in
Washington. "It would have been smaller if the industry had had its way. They were
afraid it would alarm the public."
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan pointed out that evacuations are the responsibility of
federal and state emergency agencies. "We look at the on-site response," he said,
"because people at the plant are making decisions that greatly impact decisions on
evacuations, like determining the level of emergency."
Lymann said there was validity to the industry's argument that the most lethal
radioactive particles would fall closest to the site of the accident. But that does not
mean people farther away would be safe.
"You can get pretty high assurances that you won't have acute radiation exposures
far away," he said. "But broader contamination, causing death from cancer, can
happen hundreds of miles from the plant. If you look at Chernobyl, there are areas
of contamination a hundred miles away that are almost as high as right near the
plant because of the prevailing wind patterns."
The prevailing winds in this region are from the northwest, blowing across Indian
Point down to New York City and Long Island. During the course of several days,
however, the winds shift in all directions.
"If you have a fire like they had at Chernobyl," said Tom Bevan of the Georgia Tech
Research Institute, "the contamination went hundreds of nautical miles away."
A 10-mile evacuation, Bevan said, would be potentially effective only if radioactive
steam was released. Radioactive material caught in a petroleum or other fire goes
high into the atmosphere and spreads, said Bevan, who headed the U.S.-Ukraine
Land Management Resource Center in Kiev, Ukraine, to oversee the assessment and
cleanup of Chernobyl.
The situation in Chernobyl was complicated by the fact that Ukraine was then part of
the Soviet Union, and the Communist government wasn't willing to admit to the
"The Soviets weren't willing to tell anyone that the stuff was blowing north," Bevan
said. "They evacuated people away from the reactor and right into the path of where
the fallout was going."
It took more than 600,000 emergency workers to cover the fire with sand and
cement; up to 80,000 of them died, according to Sergei Korsunsky, science attache
at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington.
"In the civilian population," Korsunsky said, "we estimate about 3.5 million people
were exposed to harmful doses of radiation. What is most terrible is that at least 1.5
million children were exposed."
The biggest long-term problem that resulted from the contamination was thyroid
gland cancer, triggered by radioactive iodine isotopes.
"With my own eyes," Korsunsky said, "I saw villages where there were several
hundred children and all of them - each and every single child - had thyroid
problems. They had some kind of cancer or were on the way to getting cancer."
David Lochbaum, a former consultant to Indian Point 3 and a nuclear safety expert
with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said the NRC is still reluctant
to consider a catastrophe in its planning.
Lochbaum attended a two-day meeting on nuclear plant security at NRC
headquarters in Maryland last week. "The issue of a plane crashing into a dome
wasn't discussed," he said. "They didn't do anything to address trucks, boats,
airplanes or whatever. They are only dealing with ground threats, which was their
concern all along."
Lochbaum said the refusal of emergency planners to consider the destruction of a
nuclear plant's containment building "was a fault even before Sept. 11."
"The containment can fail from the inside," he said.
A full meltdown would cause steam explosions with enough force to break open the
containment buildings, he said, and "our containment structures aren't designed to
handle that scenario."
An external attack, Lochbaum cautioned, would also threaten the storage pools of
spent fuel at Indian Point 2 and 3. The pools are not housed in the containment
Radiation from a meltdown of the reactor's nuclear fuel in a destroyed containment
building would have the same effect on the population as radiation from ignited fuel
in the storage pools.
"The difference is, a reactor accident causes more fatalities in the first year,"
Lochbaum said. "With the radiation from spent fuel, more fatalities occur after one
year from cancer than acute radiation exposure."