Editor's note: This is the ninth and final in a series of stories dealing with emergency preparedness in the 10-mile evacuation zone around Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
BRATTLEBORO -- If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was to expand the emergency preparedness zone around America's nuclear power plants from 10 to 50 miles, all of those plants would be forced to close down.
That's according to Dr. Ira Helfand, a board member of the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Vice President of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
As the accident at Fukushima unfolded, the NRC recommended that Americans within a 50-mile radius of the power plant complex evacuate. "Which means we need a 50-mile evacuation plan," said Helfand, who was longtime chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Mass., and now works at the Family Care Medical Center in Springfield, Mass.
But that's not going to happen, he said, because it's impossible to conduct a wide-ranging evacuation at plants such as Indian Point, in the Hudson Valley, and Diablo Canyon, in California, which are both within 50 miles of heavily populated metropolitan areas. In all, nearly 103 million Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant.
"If you had to create a 50-mile evacuation zone," said Helfand, "the only answer would be to shut down the power plants."
Ed Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, agrees with Helfand.
"Indian Point is the poster child for not doing enough," said Lyman. It's 44 miles from Indian Point, in Buchannan, N.Y., to Central Park, in New York City.
"We are talking about people that are well outside of the 10-mile evacuation zone," said Lyman, and people who live outside of the EPZ "are not party to any of the requirements of planning. All they hear is a radioactive plume is heading their way.
Even though Windham County, which is home to Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, doesn't have the population density of the area around Indian Point, those who live outside of the evacuation zone are also uninformed about the Radiological Emergency Response Plan (RERP) and what to do if there was an accident at the power plant in Vernon.
"The tunnel vision about how bad an accident can be and how extensive emergency planning measures need to be is a major issue," said Lyman. "If the accident is worse than planners have prepared for or anticipated, how do you make changes ad hoc and still have an effective evacuation?"
Larry Crist, the regional executive for the Vermont & New Hampshire Red Cross, which is tasked with finding shelter for up to 6,000 Vermonters in the 10-mile EPZ around Yankee, has also raised concerns about how prepared the region is in case of a serious accident at the plant.
"If you look at a real-world perspective and the lessons we learned from Fukushima and Irene, there is no such thing as an orderly evacuation," said Crist.
What could make matters worse for people living within the 10-mile EPZ, said Lyman, is what is called "a shadow evacuation."
"People who live outside of the evacuation zone might spontaneously evacuate and that could interfere with the ability of people closer to the plant to evacuate," he said. "A shadow evacuation has to be analyzed and predicted for specific regions. Without any kind of coordinated or coherent planning, you are asking for trouble."
"In a populated area such as that around Indian Point there would be gridlock," said Helfand.
To overcome that deficiency would require an intensive campaign of education, he said. But if one was to be conducted, people would realize "It's clearly nuts to keep this plant open."
The NRC assumes in the case of an imminent release of radiological materials from a power plant, emergency responders would take a "keyhole approach."
"People think a release of radiation can travel in a 360-degree radius," said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC. "It's not possible based on the law of physics. The plume of radioactive materials will follow prevailing winds."
The area affected by that plume is called the keyhole, he said. "That's where emergency responders would focus their protective actions, whether that's an evacuation, a shelter in place or the use of potassium iodide."
But Lyman said one of the big issues at Fukushima was the inability of officials to get real-time data and communicate it to those who might have been in the path of the plume.
The same could happen in the United States, he said, and the NRC's "keyhole approach" is inadequate.
"They don't have the data, the ability or the level of communications to make technically based decisions on the fly," said Lyman.
The keyhole approach is based on the assumption that responders will be able to quickly determine where the plume is traveling, said Crist.
"This is an assertion that has been proven incorrect in every significant nuclear power accident to date," he said. "Delays in deployment of field teams, confusion, miscommunication, public panic and distrust of authorities is normally the order of the day."
In addition, said Crist, a keyhole may grow, shrink and move around based on changing weather patterns over the course of an event that may last minutes, hours or days.
"This is an inherent flaw in RERP planning both in Vermont and nationally," he said.
While the possibility of an accident similar to that at Fukushima is remote, Lyman said the NRC has spent the last year-and-a-half assessing the accident and attempting to determine how it might relate to power plants in the United States.
"The NRC has come up with additional regulations and other requirements plant operators have to satisfy. They were caught with their pants down."
Now, said Lyman, there is "an ongoing struggle" to determine how far to go with additional safety measures and evacuation plans.
"There is a whole range of catastrophic events that plant operators have not adequately dealt with, both in preparation and design," he said.
Even though it is true a tsunami such as that which struck Fukushima could not happen at Vermont Yankee, there are a whole host of other things that could happen to the plant that could affect its safety, he said, including a cyber attack, a blackout such as that in 2003, an earthquake or a terrorist attack.
In the tri-state region around Yankee, said Helfand, all three of the reception centers that would be used to evaluate those fleeing the EPZ -- Bellows Falls Union High School in Westminster, Keene, N.H., High School and Greenfield, Mass., Community College, are less than 30 miles from Yankee.
"It is totally inadequate to evacuate people to any of those three," he said.
Emergency responders also have to consider the dangers of ordering people to leave their homes, said Helfand.
"Most of the fatalities would occur when are moving people, but you have no choice," he said. "With the risks involved with evacuations, if you're going to do it, you should get them far enough away that they are safe."
In addition, said Helfand, when we think about evacuations, we think short term.
"In the case of a nuclear accident, people are not being evacuated, but permanently removed from their homes. Even if individual lives are saved, homes, businesses, farms, schools the whole community is going to be destroyed."
In Helfand's opinion, evacuation plans are "little more than a sop to reassure people that they are safe when they really are not."
Those who live near the plant "should absolutely be worried" about the effectiveness of the evacuation plant, said Helfand.
"There is just enough disaster planning to feel safe," he said. "But the reaction you're going to get is panic."
Bob Audette can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 160, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Audette on Twitter @audette.reformer.