January 2003

Albany Says It Can't Certify Indian Point Evacuation Plan

The New York Times, January 31, 2003
By Randal C. Archibold

[Posted 31/01/2003]

New York State said yesterday that it could not approve an emergency plan for the area around the Indian Point nuclear plant, asking the federal government to take the next step in the fierce battle over the two reactors in Westchester County.

Gov. George E. Pataki did not comment on the merits of the emergency plan, which has come under increasing attack since a consultant he hired reported this month that it was inadequate to protect the public from a release of radiation, especially a large release from a terrorist attack. But Mr. Pataki said in a statement that the report "has heightened our concerns about the adequacy of the emergency plans for these communities."

Today is the deadline for New York to issue its normally routine annual certification of the emergency plan, which the state drafts in consultation with federal and local officials and the plant owner. But the state told federal officials yesterday that it could not give that approval because the four counties surrounding the plant, concerned about safety, had refused to issue their own certifications.

In effect, the governor sought to shift the focus to federal agencies, which will decide what happens next and will face pressure from opponents of Indian Point to close the plant, 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan, in Buchanan.

Many of those opponents, including local elected officials, hailed the state's move as an important step in their campaign. But closing the plant would require at least a year of legal and administrative decisions, with the plant's owner, the Entergy Corporation, fighting at every turn. And New York's message yesterday was cast more as a bureaucratic formality than an emphatic statement.

In a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state said it simply could not give its annual certification to the plan because the four counties had refused to submit required "checklists." Those forms confirm that the counties have performed necessary training and drills and have completed various administrative functions.

Mr. Pataki urged FEMA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which requires a FEMA-approved plan as a condition of the plant's operating license, to heed the counties' concerns and "continue working with us to ensure that these plans will protect our residents in the event of a nuclear emergency."

A spokesman for FEMA, Mike Beeman, said officials were reviewing the letter, which they received late yesterday, and had not determined what their next step might be. For one thing, the spokesman said, it was not clear what if anything the state was asking of the emergency agency, or if it intended to send a letter of certification at a later date.

"It is an incomplete," Mr. Beeman said, adding that the agency planned to deliver a fuller response, perhaps as early as today.

At any rate, he said, a report the agency is completing on the plant, due within a month, would carry more weight than the state's letter in deciding whether the emergency plan is adequate.

Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires a FEMA-approved plan, it has never closed a plant over emergency planning problems; indeed, it has never closed a plant permanently against an owner's will.

Even if it decides an evacuation plan is inadequate, the commission can give the plant owner a chance to show that the plan is adequate or that the owner can address the problems. The commission can also let the owner offer "other compelling reasons for continued operation," and Entergy has often pointed out that Indian Point contributes at least one-fifth of the electricity for New York City and its northern suburbs.

The company, which has defended the emergency plan as realistic, said yesterday that it welcomed the state's move as an opportunity to improve the plan.

Advocates for shutting the plant also took heart in the state's move.

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat who has led the fight to close the plant, criticized Mr. Pataki for not explicitly opposing the plan, but he said that even a tacit sign from the state might be good enough.

"It is inconceivable that FEMA can certify the plan over the objections of the counties and the state, even if the objection of the state is in the form of a quiet whine from deep in a bunker," Mr. Brodsky said.

Alex Matthiessen, executive director of Riverkeeper, an environmental organization that has led a coalition of plant foes, said, "It puts us one step closer to closing the plant."

Mr. Pataki's stance suggests that the state cannot or will not play a lead role in emergency planning. That was not the case in 1983, when Gov. Mario M. Cuomo faced a similar dilemma after Rockland County refused to participate in emergency drills for the plant.

The state told the N.R.C. then that it could fill in for Rockland emergency workers, and the commission voted to accept the plan and allow the plant to continue operating.

"The governor assured the plant would stay open by using state resources," said Alfred Delbello, a former Westchester County executive, who as Mr. Cuomo's lieutenant governor organized the state plan. Doing the same for four counties, however, would prove a challenge, he said.

Both supporters and foes of the plant said the Indian Point debate put Mr. Pataki in something of a bind. Although his home in Garrison is within the evacuation zone for the plant, he infrequently addressed the concerns raised about the plant before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks heightened anxiety.

Mr. Pataki hired the consultant, James Lee Witt, the former director of FEMA, in August as Mr. Pataki's opponents in the governor's re-election campaign began making the plant's safety an issue.

Mr. Witt's preliminary report — a final report is due next month — forced Mr. Pataki to balance the concerns of allies in the business community, who want to see the plant operating, and those of many suburban constituents who have taken Mr. Witt's findings as gospel.

"He is really in a box because a lot of his suburban support is concerned about Indian Point," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which wants the plant shut down. "But he has the other factor of the business community, which would view closing the plant as a negative signal. And he has to come up with the energy."

If Indian Point were to close, much of its power could be replaced by other sources, but independent analysts have warned that that could be costly for ratepayers. "There is a practical reality for him that the plant is a tremendous economic engine for the state," said Gavin Donahue, executive director of the Independent Power Producers of New York.

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