Friday November 2, 2012

In the 10-mile Emergency Preparedness Zone around Vermont Yankee, emergency coordinators are confident they can respond to any problems that might arise at the nuclear power plant in Vernon.

In addition, their ongoing training stands them in good stead to respond to almost any other emergency that might afflict their communities, whether they are floods, hurricanes, blizzards or a train derailment.

While Tropical Storm Irene caught many of us by surprise, that wasn’t going to happen again, as was proven by the preparation in advance of Hurricane Sandy’s possible arrival in this region. Fortunately, an emergency response wasn’t required in this case.

Because of our proximity to Yankee, we are better off than most communities when it comes to being ready to deal with any emergency, but we still wonder despite all the exercises and drills, whether anyone can respond effectively to an accident at a nuclear power plant.

As our recent nine-piece series "How prepared are we?" demonstrated, lots of time, money, thought and hours of work have been and continue to be invested in preparing for the highly unlikely event in which thousands of people might have to be evacuated from the EPZ.

But is that enough?

The local chapter of the American Red Cross is concerned it doesn’t have the resources to care for the up to 6,000 people who might need shelter following an evacuation. The Red Cross is asking for more than $700,000 to fill that shortfall and is currently in talks with the state and Entergy, which owns and operates the power plant, to determine if it will receive that money, and when.

The Red Cross is also concerned over whether the reception center at Bellows Falls Union High School can handle the number of people who will go there looking for help.

Issues that weren’t touched on in our nine-part series include how emergency planners will deal with evacuating non-ambulatory residents, such as those in hospitals and elder care facilities. And while the local school districts are working out plans on where to send children in case of an accident, we wonder what will happen at the region’s numerous child care facilities.

Forty years have passed since Yankee went online and we are still asking these questions, still perfecting escape plans and evacuation routes, still searching for shelters, still looking for a reception center in western Vermont.

These are issues that should have been resolved by now.

We applaud the professionals and volunteers and everyone else involved for their efforts in trying to make sure we would all be safe and sound in the event of an accident at Yankee, but there are many unquantifiable variables at work here that could prove to be the proverbial monkey wrench in the works.

"The tunnel vision about how bad an accident can be and how extensive emergency planning measures need to be is a major issue," said Ed Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "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?"

Or, as Red Cross regional executive Larry Crist said, "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."

There is a very low probability that an accident at Yankee serious enough to prompt evacuation could happen, but it’s not an impossibility. We all need to keep that in mind and not just depend on those dedicated to preparing for just such an eventuality. If there is ever an accident at any nuclear power plant in America, it will be all hands on deck.