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State’s nuclear response plan flawed

By Kathryn Casa | © Vermont Guardian

Posted May 17, 2007

This article was first posted on December 22, 2004, along with a companion piece that outlined much of the internal debate in state government about the lack of ability to respond to an emergency at Vermont Yankee. More than two years later, and the state recently cut funding to the program for the region.

BRATTLEBORO — Vermont’s radiological emergency planning has for years been in such disarray that state officials would be unable to monitor radiation fallout resulting from an emergency at Vermont Yankee. Nor could the decontamination center in Bellows Falls adequately protect thousands of southern Vermont residents evacuated there, according to internal state memos and copies of e-mails obtained by the Vermont Guardian.

The 32-year-old reactor “poses the single greatest ‘event’ threat to Vermont,” according to a May 2004 e-mail from Larry Crist, director of the Health Department’s Health Protection Division, to Albie Lewis, head of Vermont Emergency Management — a threat that is heightened by a proposed power increase at the plant, he wrote.

“To be inadequately prepared because we did not have sufficient resources is going to be considered a crime should an event actually occur,” Crist wrote.

It is unclear why the state has annually signed off on the emergency plan required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a component of Vermont Yankee’s operating license. Calls to the governor’s office about that issue were not returned at press time.

Lewis said this week that he was “not familiar” with the documents, which include a five-page memo from Crist citing critical shortcomings in the state’s Radiological Emergency Response Plan, and a warning from VEM’s Lew Stowell that the state can expect to fail a major FEMA drill next spring.

In Brattleboro Dec. 22 for a follow-up meeting on a failed Dec. 16 school evacuation drill, Lewis also refused to look at the documents when presented with them in person.

Crist said “a huge amount” has transpired since last spring, when he wrote the communiqués. “At long last we have set the stage for the creation of a professionally staffed and trained … team,” he said in a Dec. 23 phone interview.

But one member of the state’s Ingestion Pathway team — which would collect samples of soil, water, and agriculture products after a radiation release — concluded in a damning post-training critique obtained by the Vermont Guardian that the state is “not ready for a radiological emergency.”

Team members were outfitted with brittle gloves, ill-fitting dust masks, 1950s-era survey equipment “prone to dead batteries, loose wires and stuck gauges,” and “thin, cheap Grand Union kitchen trash bags” in which to collect irradiated samples, the state employee wrote after participating in training Nov. 4-5.

Trainers talked about “side-stepping safety requirements” by referring to team members as “volunteers,” he wrote.

The state has never had adequate personnel to carry out the emergency response plan, Crist wrote in February, and for years has played something of a shell game, juggling a “bare minimum” of some 11 qualified personnel where at least 60 are necessary.

“This was the same strategy employed for all other facets of the plan and was successful because FEMA never tested all components of the plan simultaneously,” according to Crist’s memo. “The flaw in this approach was that had there been a real event, the state would have been faced with the impossible task of assigning 11 trained health personnel to cover some 60 different roles simultaneously.”

Since the documents were written, 20-25 members of the state hazardous materials team have been designated as the state plume team, which is responsible for mapping the radiation plume footprint immediately following a release, Crist said in the interview.

However, with 25 people in place and 60 needed for both teams, the state appears to remain short-staffed, and it would take HAZMAT team members up to six hours to reach the “hot zone.”

Crist said Dec. 23 that three state departments, Health, Agriculture, and the Agency of Natural Resources, will supply a total of 14 employees for the Ingestion Pathway team. He said that all employees have been designated, but not all have been trained.

As recently as late October, internal e-mails between ANR employees indicated that the state continues to seek volunteers for the team, and is considering altering job descriptions to require state employees to staff the teams critical to the plan.

The e-mails also indicated that the employees were considering filing a grievance with their union over a possible change in their job descriptions.

Although planning has moved forward since the series of high-level memos and e-mails were exchanged last spring, preparation appears to remain inadequate as Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Corp. proceeds with a proposal to increase, or uprate, power output by 20 percent.

In May, Crist wrote to Lewis: “Given the recent events at … Vermont Yankee (stress cracks in piping, missing spent fuel rod pieces) and the real possibility of similar events in the future ( … the uprate will stress the physical facility even more than it currently is being stressed) it’s imperative that the administration understand our potential vulnerability.”

The e-mail continues: “For over five years now we have attempted to get both Vermont Yankee and the Legislature to recognize that our level of preparedness, although steadily improving, has not met the requirements contained in the [Radiological Emergency Response Plan]. We are now at the point where we can no longer gloss over our shortcomings in the hope that ‘things will get better next year.’”

Asked if he believed the plan was now sufficiently staffed and funded to handle an emergency, Lewis said that “the RERP is a living document. We are constantly looking at ways to improve the entire plan.”

As better technology becomes available, the state seeks to employ it, he said.

“There is a certifiable plan in place,” Crist insisted on Dec. 23. “The challenge is to make sure you have the resources, both monetary and personnel, to meet the requirements in that plan. That’s a very tough challenge.”

Crist’s February memo also identified serous problems at the reception center in Bellows Falls, to which residents of the emergency planning zone, including preschoolers, schoolchildren, and the elderly and infirm, would be evacuated.

The center failed a 2001 FEMA drill, but passed during a follow-up retest of portions of the drill. Crist wrote that, since the 2002 retest, “In short, we have a reception center that is not meeting basic readiness requirements and, more importantly, is staffed by local officials who do not appear to believe that they are accountable to either Health or VEM.”

He recommended that responsibility for the center be shifted either to Entergy or to the local communities.

Crist said on Dec. 23 that problems at the reception center stem from the fact that “it has never been completely clarified who actually is responsible” for the center’s overall operation. He noted that the center, which would be set up at Bellows Falls high school, is designed to handle only 15 to 20 percent of the population of the 10-mile emergency planning zone. The expected number of cars alone would overwhelm parking capacity, he acknowledged.

The state hopes to resolve the problems by establishing a second reception center to the west, possibly in Bennington, Crist said.

One anti-nuclear activist called the planning problems “a dereliction of responsibility to the people of Vermont.”

“To permit the plant to continue running when these emergency response measures are not in place is a huge hypocrisy,” said Ray Shadis, technical advisor to the New England Coalition, which closely monitors Vermont Yankee. “They treat it as if they’ve got all the time in the world to pony up some kind of fill-in-the-blanks, demonstrable plan, but looking at the facts, you cannot say they’re serious.”