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  • Roger Witherspoon

Preparing for an Evacuation

By Roger Witherspoon

The Journal News (Westchester County, NY)

September 22, 2002 Sunday

Drill will test response to an incident at Indian Point, but some scoff at effectiveness

The Journal News

BUCHANAN - On Tuesday morning, the instruments in a control room at Indian Point

2 will show something very, very wrong. Then, things will only get worse.

Before the day is half over, the nuclear power plant's operators will lose control of

more than 400,000 gallons of coolant. The reactor core will turn into a nuclear,

molten slag, which will melt through the reactor's steel liner and drop into the pool of

coolant water on the huge containment building's floor.

The force of the resulting steam explosion will burst through the building,

threatening people in four counties with wind-borne radioactive contamination.

At that point, the emergency response teams of Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and

Orange counties and the State Emergency Management Office will begin trying to

protect as many residents as possible. They will have to evacuate everyone who may

be in the path of the radiation cloud, control all traffic in the region, set up

emergency evacuation centers, safely remove children from schools and shut-ins

from hospitals and nursing homes, and treat contamination victims in special hospital

facilities and emergency centers.

The emergency will not be real, but the stakes will be high.

County, state and Indian Point officials will attempt to prove to federal regulators

that the more than 300,000 residents within 10 miles of the nuclear plants could be

safely protected or evacuated in the event of a real radiation emergency. Federal

regulators will also try to assure the public that the exercise - a biannual drill of the

counties' emergency evacuation plans - is a valid measure of the level of protection

the public can expect.

"The purpose is to show that, should there be a real emergency, we can protect the

public health and safety," said Susan Tolchin, chief adviser to Westchester County

Executive Andrew Spano. "Which we can do."

The drill, which uses a relatively small number of people to simulate the interactions

of thousands from scores of organizations, has come under increasing criticism since

the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It has been looked at as an

ineffective tool to test how well emergency workers and law enforcement officials

could safely evacuate thousands of frightened people.

Of late, critics have cited the official analysis of the response to the Trade Center

disaster by New York City firefighters and police as an example of the Indian Point

drill's deficiencies. The study found that many of these first responders died

needlessly because of a lack of individual training and coordination between


"Our analysis of the police and fire response recommends full training and drills and

simulations for all personnel, not just representatives or officers," said Andrew

Giangola, spokesman for McKinsey and Co., the consulting firm that analyzed New

York City's response on Sept. 11. "This is to ensure that procedures are known and

followed by all of those who will be responding to a catastrophe. The city faces a new

reality, new levels of threats that necessitate new levels of training done more


The regional emergency response plans for Indian Point have not significantly

changed in recent years, and do not take into account the kind of terrorist attack

that felled the Twin Towers, or an attack on the pool of spent fuel elsewhere on the

plant's property.

Tuesday's drill will focus on the response to a particular area that would be

contaminated based on prevailing winds, which will be selected by testers the day of

the exercise. Westchester will need to show that it can evacuate residents within a

mile of the plant and along the path of the radioactive cloud. If the wind route takes

the radiation into Putnam or Rockland counties, they will also have to test their

evacuation plans.

Controllers who face the mock crisis will not operate the real reactor, but will work in

an identical simulator room fighting a series of nuclear problems thrown at them by

those running the drill.

The test is to ensure that Indian Point meets its federal license requirement to have

a realistic emergency plan in place. How well the agencies involved interact and

respond to the simulated emergency will be evaluated by teams of 52 inspectors

from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and 20 inspectors from the U.S.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

NRC inspectors will monitor actions within the plant to determine how well control

room operators and other plant personnel respond to their various challenges and

communicate with outside agencies.

That part of the drill is of particular significance to Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which

purchased Indian Point 2 last September, and has had to deal with poorly trained

staff at virtually every level. The plant has a "yellow" designation by the NRC, the

agency's second-lowest safety rating, because four of its seven control room crews

failed their annual licensing exams in October. Entergy has since instituted new

training programs for the entire staff in an effort to upgrade performance.

NRC documents obtained by The Journal News show that, since 1995, Indian Point 2

has had difficulty passing parts of its emergency drills or properly responding to real

problem situations because of employees' inability to correctly identify the cause of

equipment or system malfunctions.

The regulatory agency's most recent cause for concern in the area of emergency

preparedness was the plant's Feb. 15, 2000, steam generator tube failure, which

resulted in the leak of 20,000 gallons of radioactive coolant in the plant and a small

release of contaminated gas into the atmosphere.

Two members of the NRC team that investigated the accident criticized the plant's

response and wrote in a March 30, 2000, memo that, "We are uncertain that the

licensee could protect public health and safety during a significant radiological

emergency because of the difficulties demonstrated by the licensee in implementing

their emergency plan ? Given the history of the licensee's various communication

breakdowns, procedural deficiencies, qualification lapses, poor personnel

coordination and weak technical support, we conclude that the outcome of the

licensee's response to a challenging emergency would be uncertain."

"We have seen some improvement, but they still have a way to go," NRC spokesman

Neil Sheehan said recently. "Entergy has devoted a lot of resources to try to address

these problems, including mentoring control room operators, improving their training

and providing better equipment. They are taking steps to get at the root of these

problems, but they do take time. This will be a good test."

Mike Slobodien, Entergy's director of emergency programs, said training has been

completely changed at the plant.

"We do not tell them what is wrong," he said. "We only tell them symptoms. They

have to use the proper diagnostic equipment, make the appropriate tests and only

then do they get the information allowing them to go to the next step. The objective

is to demonstrate they can figure out what is going on."

Tuesday's drill is the largest in a series of tests designed to examine the region's

overall emergency response capabilities. Other reviews conducted earlier this

summer examined the ability of hospitals to set up isolation treatment areas to care

for contaminated or injured victims, whether reception centers could hold school

children and other evacuees, and whether systems were in place to protect food,

livestock and water sources.

In Putnam, for example, FEMA evaluated a four-hour drill designed to show that

ambulance crews and Putnam Hospital Center were equipped to handle a person

contaminated by radiation.

Officials representing 23 state agencies and Gov. George Pataki's office will

participate in Tuesday's drill from the State Emergency Management Office in

Albany. At Westchester's emergency command center in the county office building in

White Plains, the top two officials of each county department will join Spano in the

drill. During the past year, Tolchin said, more than 1,500 county employees have

participated in emergency training at a cost of more than $4.6 million. The county

received $412,500 from Entergy for emergency planning and training.

The decisions made by officials during the drill will not actually be carried out by

anyone. There will be no police barricades set up, no sample evacuations, no mock

victims treated at hospitals. There will be field monitoring teams that will be sent out

to take radiation readings at various points in each county.

Each participating police and fire department will have a representative talking about

their responsibilities, said Robert Reynolds of FEMA's National Preparedness Division.

For example, he said, a traffic control point might be selected in Croton-on-Hudson

and the designated officer from that department would go to the spot, where he

would be interviewed by FEMA testers.

"He would not be graded on his travel time," Reynolds said, "but on whether or not

he understands his responsibilities."

The officer would then explain how he would set up barricades and direct traffic away

from the advancing radiation cloud. That discussion would represent how the entire

Croton Police Department would effectively deal with all traffic through its area.

Similarly, an interview with a police officer in Nyack could represent traffic control for

all of Route 9W or the Palisades Parkway.

Dennis Michulski, a SEMO spokesman, said the drill was primarily "a full-scale

decision-making exercise. During an emergency, all state agencies are available. But

the idea here is to present problems and test how the answers to those problems are

worked out in a timely manner."

While a key element of any evacuation is transportation, that, too, will be simulated.

Calls will be made to bus companies at the time they would be contacted during a

real emergency, but no buses will actually hit the road.

Nor will the public be involved in any aspect of the drill, a lack of participation that

also has critics wondering how the counties can accurately predict how residents

would react during a true emergency.

William Waugh, a professor of public administration and urban studies at Georgia

State University and a specialist in urban emergency response, said exercises such

as the Indian Point drill assume the public will follow instructions in the event of a

real emergency.

"Under the best of circumstances that doesn't happen," he said. "People don't do

what they are told. We don't respond to authority the way we used to. If a drill is to

be effective, (planners) have to pay much more attention to involving the public than

they are used to.

"But FEMA drills and those of very few agencies are built to involve the public," he

said. "They have a law enforcement and military orientation, and human factors are

not necessarily considered. Yet everyone in emergency management knows that

some people will comply, and some people won't. In real emergencies, there are a

lot of people who do not follow directions and are injured or killed. You can't assume

that people will get in their car and go when you say go, or go only where you want

them to go."

Reach Roger Witherspoon at or 914-696-8566.

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