Push To Expand Nuclear Evacuation Zone

Japan disaster spurs calls for 50-mile escape plan

Well before a March 11 earthquake led to a partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, local antinuclear activists and elected officials were warning of the potential for disaster if a hurricane or other unusual weather event damaged the Millstone nuclear complex in Waterford, Conn., despite assurances from its managing corporation, Dominion, that the two plants and their susceptibility to extreme weather are nothing like those in Japan.

Indeed, on Feb. 11, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. introduced a bill to, among other things, bring about a “comprehensive review of disaster preparedness plans for . . . [nuclear] power plants,” including analysis of “the feasibility of evacuating areas within 50 miles of a power plant in the event of a severe core damage accident.” United States corporations that manage nuclear plants are required to provide evacuation plans for a 10-mile radius, though reports that Americans within 50 miles of the Japanese reactor were being encouraged to evacuate by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, Gregory Jaczko, would suggest Mr. Thiele’s bill is based on this more aggressive approach.

“I feel as strongly about this as I ever have,” Mr. Thiele said over the phone on Friday. N.R.C. regulations “include only 10 miles — this takes into account the North Fork but not the South. More than ever, every nuclear plant needs to prepare a 50-mile plan, at a bare minimum.” State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle is also supporting the legislation, and introduced it in the Senate on March 25.

County Legislator Jay Schneiderman followed up with a release on March 29 drawing attention to a letter he sent to Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer and Representative Tim Bishop urging that they push to expand the 10-mile radius to at least 25. 

“If one lesson can be clearly learned from the nuclear incident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, it is that the current U.S. requirement of evacuation planning [. . .] is woefully inadequate,” Mr. Schneiderman wrote in the letter. “Our own president urged that any U.S. citizen within 50 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi plant be evacuated. Both forks of Eastern Long Island sit within a 50-mile radius of the aging Millstone 2 nuclear power plant in Waterford, Conn. The Japanese government required evacuations within 25 miles of the leaking power plant.” The East Hampton, and large areas of Southampton Town are all within a 25-mile radius of the Millstone facility.

Three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi lost power and could not be cooled in the wake of the tsunami in Japan, their batteries failing after eight hours. David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Program with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a media conference call on March 14 that many U.S reactors would find themselves in a similar situation in the event of a severe weather event, though earthquakes are rare in Connecticut.

Ken Holt, a spokesman for Dominion, said when reached by telephone that units 2 and 3 at Millstone, the active reactors, have two backup diesel generators each. In addition, unlike in Japan, the generators are protected from the elements by flood barriers and tornado doors. Nonetheless, he said that “any time there’s a major event in the nuclear industry, we pay attention. We’re reviewing our ability to respond in the event of an emergency.”

Nancy Burton, director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Millstone, has been warning for years that the plant is vulnerable, and believes a disaster like that at Fukushima Daiichi is not implausible. After acknowledging during a recent press appearance that earthquakes and tsunamis are not likely to affect the plant, she said, “. . . hurricanes, tornadoes, and other storm events can and do occur and they and other factors can set off a chain of events crippling the nuclear power station and even leading to a meltdown.”

Priscilla Star of Montauk and Florida, a former board member of the now-defunct Standing for Truth About Radiation Foundation, decided this month to form a new group, the Standing for Truth About Radiation Coalition. 

“If the U.S. government can urge U.S. citizens to evacuate a 50-mile zone away from Fukushima, then the U.S. government can provide that here,” Ms. Star said over the phone on Monday. “The focus of the STAR Coalition will be to mobilize East End environmental organizations to become a powerful demographic group. We will demand from our elected officials the implementation of a 50-mile emergency evacuation plan because all things considered, the 10-mile no-way-out plan really doesn’t work. Nuclear reactors in Waterford, Conn., and the East End of Long Island are environmentally linked in a New York minute. Quite frankly, this is an environmental call to arms.”

Millstone has a reputation for current and former employees speaking to the media about its safety issues and potential to harm nearby communities. When Millstone reopened after closing for safety changes in 1998, Gerald Reardon, an engineer at the station, said: “It is certainly possible to have a severe accident, and Long Island is kind of a trapped audience. If the wind is blowing toward them, they can come down to the shore and watch the cloud come. Radionuclides are not going to stop at the 10-mile limit.”

Bob Stern, president of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, echoed Ms. Star’s apprehension. “Living in Montauk — at the very end of Long Island — we are relatively close to the Millstone nuclear plant and don’t have an easy exit strategy,” he said Monday, speaking for himself and not C.C.O.M. “Preparing ourselves with a population evacuation plan to a 50-mile radius from that plant sounds important and prudent to me. If that is the new standard for Japan, why not us?”