“There are many lessons that can be drawn from Hurricane Katrina, but one of the most useful may be this: Be skeptical about government emergency plans. Clouds of blame are still swirling on the Gulf Coast, but it has long been clear that the botched evacuations and needless deaths did not result from a lack of plans. Every level of government seemed to have one, and one after another they failed.
The region around the Indian Point nuclear plant needs a sound, workable evacuation plan, just as New Orleans did. That should be obvious to anyone who remembers the shock of 9/11 and failures during Hurricane Katrina, and who knows something about the everyday realities of moving around Westchester, where the nightly chore of moving workers from office to living room is often more than the groaning transportation grid can bear.
An Indian Point evacuation plan exists, of course. It’s government-approved, which is good for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, which runs Indian Point, because nuclear plants can’t operate without government-approved evacuation plans. But the 20 million people who live within the 50-mile shadow of Indian Point have every right to be dubious about it.
Working together, Indian Point and the federal government have regularly reinforced people’s faith in the human capacity for failure. The litany of missteps includes, but is not limited to, the Katrina disaster; Indian Point’s years of trying to get its sirens to work right; the radiation leaks that spring up as regularly as dandelions; and, just this month, an accident that shut down the reactor at Indian Point 2. (A contractor bumped a light switch and cut power to the control rods. It sounds like a Homer Simpson moment, but it happened.)
A far more specific and damning case against the plant’s emergency planning was laid out in 2003 in a report by a former FEMA director, James Lee Witt. Mr. Witt documented many flaws in the plan, particularly its failure to account for terrorist acts and to protect people from radiation. The response by FEMA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — a terse reassertion that everything was O.K. — was derided by local politicians, advocacy groups and this newspaper as insultingly insubstantial.
Now there is a chance to set things right. A bill introduced in Congress last week called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do an independent safety assessment of Indian Point — not just of its maintenance and operations, but a comprehensive evaluation of its emergency plan. It would require the agency to go over the plan annually to make sure it is adequate, and to give a detailed response to each criticism in Mr. Witt’s report.
The bill’s sponsors — Maurice Hinchey, Nita Lowey, Eliot Engel and Sue Kelly of New York, and Christopher Shays of Connecticut — were seconded by Senator Hillary Clinton, who on Thursday won the N.R.C.’s commitment to conduct the review. The agency should move quickly to keep its promise and make Congressional action unnecessary. After Katrina, it’s a no-brainer.”