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Traffic Jam From Hell

Studies show county nuclear evacuation plan is fraught with problems

In the event of a terrorist attack on one of our two local nuclear plants, or of a nuclear accident like the one that occurred at Three Mile Island, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has a plan. Like nuclear evacuation plans across the country, our county's plan proposes to do the unlikely, if not the impossible: evacuate up to 195,000 people from the 10-mile emergency planning zones (EPZ) around McGuire Nuclear Station in under eight hours. During a full-scale nuclear event, if the evacuation doesn't go exactly as planned, tens of thousands of people would likely end up trapped in traffic in the middle of a radioactive plume.

Mecklenburg County emergency planning officials say they are confident our local nuclear evacuation plan, which is very similar to other plans around the country, will work. Not everyone agrees. New York Governor George Pataki, for instance, has asked the federal government to review emergency evacuation plans for all the country's nuclear power plants, including those for the 10-mile zones around McGuire and Catawba Nuclear Stations. Pataki's actions came in February, after a survey showed that the evacuation plan for the area around New York's Indian Point nuclear power plant was grossly inadequate.

Because news of a disaster would carry further than the 10-mile zone by radio, television and cell phone, the survey, conducted for an environmental group called Riverkeeper, showed that a nuclear emergency would trigger mass evacuations well beyond the 10-mile radius that governments prepare for, causing bottlenecks and preventing those closest to the plant from escaping.

Because Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requirements for evacuation plans don't envision terrorist attacks, or a widespread radioactive release following a meltdown of a nuclear reactor, the Indian Point nuclear evacuation plan -- like Mecklenburg County's plan -- covers only 10 miles around the plant site. That's sufficient for dealing with most accidents -- nuclear regulatory agencies assume there will be a slow radiation leak that could be stemmed in a few hours -- but not a major catastrophe that could contaminate an area 50 miles around the plant site.

It's exactly the kind of accident Tom Bevan, Director of the Center for Emergency Response Instruction and Policy at Georgia Tech, has lost sleep over. He says that the federally mandated, 10-mile-zone plans in use today aren't equipped to handle the kind of catastrophic radiation release government studies have suggested could be caused by a terrorist attack.

"Radiation does not recognize where the 10-mile line stops," said Bevan. "If there is a catastrophic release, it could travel on the wind for hundreds of miles. But I have not seen any indication the federal government plans to revise their evacuation plans," said Bevan.

Invisible MenaceEvery year, residents who live in the 10-mile EPZ around Catawba and McGuire Nuclear Stations get calendars in the mail featuring idyllic nature scenes. At the bottom of each month, in small print, are instructions for what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency. Toward the back are descriptions of evacuation routes and a map that carves the 10-mile zone into 19 smaller action zones where a couple hundred to 20,000 people live and work. Since the map isn't very detailed, it's hard to tell which subdivisions and office parks fall into which zones. But the gist of the plan is that in the event of a nuclear emergency, people will figure out which zone they live in, and then turn on the radio or television to find out what they should do. Those decisions will ultimately be made by high-ranking city and county emergency response planners operating from a centralized command station. The information they based their evacuation decisions upon would come from another call center, deep within the Duke Energy building downtown, where plant, federal and state officials would track the unfolding disaster.

According to the evacuation plan, by the time the emergency sirens sound near the plant, it's likely that the two centers will already be manned and ready to give citizens evacuation instructions. If the situation occurred during the school day, school buses carrying children would already be on the road, headed out of the zone, before the general public was informed there was reason to evacuate.

It sounds great on paper, says Dr. Donald Ziegler, a professor at Old Dominion University. But no matter how prepared local officials are, he says, it won't work. Because radiation is an invisible phenomenon, he says, it fosters a much different reaction in people than fire or hurricanes. With hurricanes and fires, there's typically at least a 24-hour advance warning that evacuation might be necessary. People have time to prepare. But nuclear accidents are different, he says.

For the past 20 years, Ziegler and a group of his colleagues have dedicated their scientific careers to studying the nation's nuclear evacuation plans and the aftermath of nuclear disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. But despite all the studies he's published, he and his colleagues have so far failed to convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that plans like Mecklenburg County's are based on faulty assumptions that could have deadly consequences.

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