Editorials

“Pataki artfully avoids taking stand on Indian Point” by Phil Riesman

Gov. George Pataki can run from Indian Point, but he can’t hide.

He can bob, weave and pass the proverbial buck through the chambers of the vast bureaucracy only so long before the issue will inevitably come back to him in the form of a direct question. That question is: Can the public be safely evacuated in case of a terrorist attack at the nuclear power facility?

The obvious reply is, “No.”

But up to now, the governor has deftly sidestepped the issue, even in the face of overwhelming evidence independently gathered and analyzed in a 550-page report by James Lee Witt Associates — an outfit that Pataki appointed at a cost of $804,000.

By saying, “No,” Pataki would then have to discuss the ultimate fate of Indian Point, and that would tempt the anger of the pro-nuclear business community (including Entergy Corp., the atom-splitting mega-chain that brought us the wacky slogan, “Safe, Secure, Vital”) and the White House now occupied by a Texas oilman who says “nuculer,” never met an SUV he didn’t like, and thinks a coherent energy policy is popping a can of Red Bull.

Instead of taking any kind of real stand, Pataki has diffidently raised “concerns” over the findings of the Witt report and last week repeated the mantra that “safety must be our top priority.” Well, duh. That’s like being against litter.

It’s an undisputed fact that Pataki ran a brilliant election campaign last year, but it’s also true that his success was largely owed to an avoidance of the state’s most pressing issues, such as the looming budget crisis. The Pataki-Indian Point strategy during the race was best symbolized on Oct. 18, when the governor treated the press corps to a tour down the Hudson River on a pilot boat. The boat trip began in Croton-on-Hudson and headed south, in the opposite direction from Buchanan, where the nuclear power plants’ concrete containment domes are clearly visible on the riverbank.

Chatting it up with reporters, Pataki at one point waxed euphoric over the beauty of Hook Mountain in Rockland County.

“You’ll see, on a given day when the wind is right, thousands of hawks flying over that mountain,” he said. “It’s just incredible.”

Of course, if Indian Point had been seen from the poop deck, the governor would’ve been compelled to speculate on how the unpredictable wind might carry a radioactive plume over to the mountain. That, indeed, would have been incredible.

Facing constituent pressure not to certify the inadequate emergency plans, Pataki then did a very clever thing: Instead of rushing to judgment on Indian Point, he appointed Witt to review the plans and come up with a set of supposedly independent conclusions that were to be released after the election.

The strategy was not wholly self-serving. By hiring Witt, a Democrat and former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Pataki deservedly earned credit for approaching the issue in carefully measured steps. That credit was doubly earned when it turned out that Witt didn’t toe the pro-nuke company line (as some skeptics thought he would) and was highly critical of the emergency plans.

The Witt report had a seismic effect.

It shifted the momentum clearly into the growing camp of anti-Indian Point activists who believe that, absent a workable response to a terrorist attack, the plants should be closed. Even Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano, who was an ardent defender of the evacuation plans, read the Witt report, saw the light and came over to the other side.

Last week, Spano and the county executives from Rockland, Putnam and Orange counties declined to ship the federally required paperwork needed to certify the evacuation plans in Albany. In effect, the county executives stopped the wheels of the bureaucracy.

This was duly noted in a letter Thursday to FEMA written by Edward F. Jacoby Jr., director of the State Emergency Management Office.

“Because no formal reports (from the four counties) have been forwarded,” Jacoby wrote, “I am unable to transmit checklists for the Indian Point planning area at this time.”

Even after that, Pataki continued to play political dodge ball by announcing that he (actually, he said “we”) would continue to study the Witt report, which will not be finalized for another week. In the meantime, he threw the issue back to the feds, urging FEMA and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency to “consider the concerns raised by the counties and continue working with us to ensure that these plans will protect our residents in the event of a nuclear emergency.”

I’ll bet that was appreciated.

This editorial originally appeared in the Journal News

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