Bellows Falls Union High School
Bellows Falls Union High School
Wednesday October 24, 2012

Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of stories dealing with emergency preparedness in the 10-mile evacuation zone around Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

BRATTLEBORO -- A "reception center" will be the first stop for people who may be asked to leave the emergency preparedness zone in case of an emergency at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

There, people and their vehicles will be checked for traces of radioactive materials and decontaminated if necessary.

The reception center will also be a place to get some food, line up a place to stay for those who don't have family or friends who can offer lodging, register for re-unification with loved ones and receive medical assistance or counseling.

There are three designated reception centers outside of the 10-mile EPZ around the power plant: At Greenfield, Mass., Community College; Keene, N.H., High School; and Bellows Falls Union High School in Westminster.

Vermont Emergency Management has been struggling for a number of years to locate a western reception center in Wilmington or Bennington, but to no avail.

BFUHS is the primary reception center for those in Vermont, and is operated by the state in cooperation with the town of Westminster, the American Red Cross and neighboring towns.

Last week, the state conducted a practice session at the high school, with about 35 people participating, said Westminster Town Clerk Doreen Woodward, who is also the reception center director.

"The plan as written calls for 111 people to fully staff the reception center," said Woodward. "That's the optimal number of people to do it. Could we do it with less? Yes. But we certainly want more than we have."

Even though there was only about one-third of the people that will be needed, Woodward said the exercise, which focused on traffic monitoring and decontamination of both people and vehicles, went very well.

"I felt this was the best practice we've had," she said.

One of the reasons the exercise was scheduled was to give the volunteers at the Westminster Fire Department an opportunity to operate the portal monitors, which will be used to detect radioactive contamination of those fleeing the EPZ.

"We want to do these more often, but we just don't get to it," said Woodward.

Woodward said it's been estimated up to 6,000 people might come to the reception center looking for help.

"More than likely a lot of those 6,000 people won't head our way," she said. "They'll pack up and leave for their relatives. They won't take the time to come to the reception center unless there is a release and they think they've been contaminated. I'd be very surprised if all 6,000 came through, but we have to be prepared for that. If 6,000 people do come through, they're going to have to be patient. It will take a long time."

Bill Irwin, the chief of radiological health for the Department of Health, was on hand to brief the volunteers on what they could expect if there was a release of radiological materials from the plant.

Irwin said it was a good practice session, even though the Red Cross, which will be tasked with finding shelter for those who don't have a place to go, did not participate.

"We set up all the equipment, tested the procedures and ran through all of the stages," he said. "We verified all the equipment was operational and identified some work that needs to continue."

He hopes to soon schedule an exercise that includes the Red Cross and state agencies.

Larry Crist, the regional executive of the New Hampshire & Vermont Red Cross, has expressed concerns about his organization's ability to find beds for the possible 6,000 people who might need them.

He estimates it will take 16 shelters, but most of them have not been located and when they are, will need to be supplied with cots, blankets and other material.

He is asking for $700,000 from the radiological emergency response budget that Entergy supplies every year.

Crist said that though the models call for up to 6,000 people to show up at the reception center, "The number could range from a few thousand to all 30,000 EPZ residents, depending upon the extent of a release from the plant."

The current plan calls for an orderly evacuation over an eight-hour span, but Crist estimates they will show up within four hours.

"Based on the panic generally associated with emergency evacuations in areas where they do not commonly occur, and viewing public response during events at Three Mile Island and Fukushima, it is more likely that people will arrive at the center faster and in a less orderly manner than is contemplated in the current Radiological Emergency Response Plan," wrote Crist in a white paper laying out what the Red Cross believes are the deficiencies in the plan.

If an evacuation was to happen at night or during bad weather, it could mean chaos at the reception center, wrote Crist, who believes the high school doesn't have the space, equipment, personnel or procedures for performing the reception center's core function.

And to process 6,000 people or more would take 50 Red Cross intake workers, each with laptops, software and an Internet connection, he wrote.

"These individuals would have to be in place and operational within 30 minutes of the evacuation -- a timeframe that is not possible given the fact that the 50 workers are not readily available, there are no laptops and there is no IT infrastructure in place," wrote Crist.

If all of that is resolved, there is still the problem of getting those 6,000 people to one of the 16 designated shelters, he wrote.

"Given that some Red Cross shelters could be hours away from the EPZ, the number of transport vehicles, the frequency of trips and the length of travel do not appear to be adequately addressed in the RERP."

In addition, Crist doesn't believe 6,000 people can be screened and processed at the high school reception center.

"A better alternative would be to pre-designate towns to shelters, so that upon evacuation each town would know where its shelter assignment was and townspeople could go directly to the assigned shelter," he wrote.

While Irwin from the Department of Health said he has not had a chance to fully evaluate the Red Cross' concerns, he believes it makes more sense to process the evacuees through one central location.

"This model can work," said Irwin. "It's not going to be easy and it's not going to be fast. But it will be effective and safe."

Both Irwin and Woodward, Westminster's town clerk, recognize that the most important thing to resolve about the reception center's operation is finding the people who are willing to attend annual exercises and be available if there is a real emergency at the plant.

"There's always a need for more staff and more volunteers to work on these teams," said Woodward. "If we had the numbers, I would be pretty confident. But until the state works with us to find a solution for getting more people to help us, if the numbers predicted come through the doors, it's going to be a long haul."

She is always looking for volunteers who are trained to perform duties that best suit their experience, physical abilities and personal demeanor.

"In the front, you need people who are good at dispatching and operating a radio," said Woodward. "And you need nice hardy guys that can handle traffic to have outside working with the sheriff's department to provide security."

Currently, those who will be called upon to direct traffic, operate the radiation monitoring equipment, help people register for reunification, find shelter for those who need it, provide medical care and counseling and serve meals come from fire departments in Westminster, Saxtons River, North Walpole, the Red Cross, Vermont Emergency Management, the Windham County Sheriff's Department and state agencies such as the Department of Health, Health and Human Services and the Agency of Transportation.

Even though the high school is basically on the Westminster/Rockingham town line, she has not received any assistance from the town of Rockingham or its village of Bellows Falls.

She hopes to enlist firefighters from Grafton, but other departments such as the one in Putney have other responsibilities if there is an emergency at the power plant.

Though many people when asked directly have been happy to help out, she said, "Some have said to me they have a philosophical aversion to aiding Entergy (which owns and operates Yankee) and nuclear power as a whole."

Woodward said she neither supports nor opposes nuclear power.

"But I believe we have a duty to do the best we can to help our neighbors," she said. "As long as Entergy is there, we need to be the best prepared we can."

Bob Audette can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 160 or via e-mail at raudette@reformer.com. Follow Audette on Twitter @audette.reformer.