“WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 — Demands by elected officials for improvements in emergency plans for the Indian Point nuclear plant grew more strident today, but experts on the workings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said its history suggested that it would not consider emergency planning problems as a reason to close the plant.
The protests, after a consultant’s report that the plans are inadequate, are spreading to areas away from the plant, in Buchanan, N.Y., on the east bank of the Hudson River. Today, Dennis McNerney, the executive of Bergen County, N.J., said, “I promise that I will use every means at my disposal, including legal action, if necessary, to shut down the reactors if it is not done voluntarily” until the plans are improved.
Andrew J. Spano, the Westchester County executive, said he planned a conference call on Wednesday with his counterparts in Orange, Rockland and Putnam Counties, to urge them not to certify their evacuation plans to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. An adviser, Susan Tolchin, said Mr. Spano wanted the agency to add terrorist attacks to its requirements and take over the cost of local responses.
While county and state approval of emergency procedures is desirable, Nuclear Regulatory Commissions rules do not require it for a plant to continue operating. The commission has shown no sympathy lately for arguments based on the threat of terrorism; last month it said its administrative law judges should not consider such arguments in four licensing hearings.
Under the Atomic Energy Act, the federal government decides whether the reactors may run, and the commission has shown little inclination to close plants because of problems in emergency planning. But a spokesman, Neil Sheehan, said the commissioners would listen.
“The N.R.C. would value input from anybody with expertise on the topic of emergency planning, and certainly Mr. Witt, as the former director of FEMA, has considerable knowledge of the way these plans are put together,” Mr. Sheehan said, referring to James Lee Witt, the consultant Gov. George E. Pataki asked to evaluate the Indian Point plans.
Mr. Witt’s report found that the Indian Point plans were “not adequate” to “protect the people from an unacceptable dose of radiation in the event of a release from Indian Point.” The report recommended a revision of federal regulations guiding the the disaster plans.
Mr. Sheehan said that even if the emergency management agency were to tell the commission that planning was deficient, the commission would have to find that the preparations for an emergency did not provide “reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in event of a radiological emergency” before it would act. Then the commission would give the plant 120 days to fix the problem. It did that in several cases in the early 1980’s, but not recently, Mr. Sheehan said.
Peter A. Bradford, who was on the commission in that era, recalled that in the case of the Shoreham nuclear reactor on Long Island, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo said the emergency plans were unworkable and that the plant should not be licensed. The commission, Mr. Bradford said, “threw him out of the case.”
The commission licensed the plant, reasoning that even if Mr. Cuomo and county officials boycotted drills, they would participate in a real emergency. The commission called this its “realism rule.”
The debate could find another forum in Congress. Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is one of the foremost nuclear critics in the House, said today that he would reintroduce a bill that dealt with half the terrorism problem — protection of plants. His bill, which passed the House in the last session but died in the Senate, would have the federal government take over plant security just as it took over airport security.
Representative Nita M. Lowey, a Westchester Democrat, was a co-sponsor, as were Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Harry Reid of Nevada, all Democrats; and James M. Jeffords of Vermont, an independent.
Amid the debate about safety, one of the plant’s reactors, Indian Point 3, was shut down yesterday when a water pump failed. A spokesman for Entergy Corp., the plant’s owner, said there was no danger to workers or the public, and that the adjacent reactor remained at full power. The spokesman, Jim Steets, said that it was unclear how long the shutdown would last, but that it could be several days.