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Officials, get serious about nuclear evacuations

It's been a regular celebration around here. Three times in the last month, elected officials have gathered to praise their excellent emergency plans and their readiness in case of terrorist attack. Like most other municipalities in the shadow of nuclear plants, our emergency planners insist there's no need to change or expand our nuclear evacuation plans, which only cover the area 10 miles around a plant. Instead, they've patted themselves on the back for their evacuation planning -- and completely ignored the growing body of evidence that suggests that our nuclear evacuation plans are grossly inadequate in the event of terrorist attack. If this evidence were obscure, that'd be one thing. When it runs prominently in the Charlotte Observer, it's another.

>Last week, the daily paper ran an article about the potassium iodide pills being distributed by the state to folks who live within 10 miles of the plant. The pills are supposed to help protect people from thyroid cancer in the event of an accidental radiation leak or one caused by a terrorist attack.

But, the paper reported, national experts now say that the pill distribution plan will be inadequate unless pills are distributed to people who live further than 10 miles from the plant.

You've got to ask yourself why people who live outside the 10-mile zone around a nuclear plant might need KI pills if they are in so little danger from spreading radiation that the county hasn't bothered to concoct a plan for evacuating them. (The federal government doesn't require evacuation plans beyond 10 miles around a nuclear site, though local municipalities could go further if they wished.)

One also has to wonder why the American Thyroid Association recommends that people within 50 miles of a plant be given several KI pills in case an evacuation takes longer than a day, as reported in the Observer.

Why would people outside the 10-mile zone need two doses in case evacuation drags on if there's no need to evacuate them? And why would they need an extra dose if, according to the county's evacuation time estimates, they can clear the 10-mile zone around Catawba and McGuire Nuclear Stations in under eight hours?

The answers to these puzzling questions were printed in Creative Loafing weeks ago.

Analysis of the Chernobyl accident showed radiation fires could spread radiation for well over 100 miles. Mecklenburg County's plan for the evacuation of up to 195,000 people from the EPZ around McGuire in under eight hours may meet federal guidelines, but by the federal government's own standards, that's not nearly fast enough to keep fleeing people out of the path of radiation. According to a FEMA report called Dynamic Evacuation Analysis, it would take only a half hour to two hours for a radiation release to travel five miles from the plant, and from one to four hours for it to spread 10 miles.

So what exactly are folks who live, say, 15 miles from the plant supposed to do if a terrorist attack releases radiation? Who knows. Heck, according to our evacuation plans, many of the shelters that would house those fleeing the radiation are within the 15 to 20-mile zone.

But what are the odds that terrorists will attack a nuclear plant? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has resisted pressure from health experts to give out the potassium iodide pills for over 20 years, must think there's some possibility of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant, or they wouldn't be giving them out now, in the wake of 9/11.

Maybe they're concerned about the diagrams of American nuclear plants US forces found in terrorist camps in Afghanistan. Maybe those at the NRC are concerned because their own tests over the last 20 years have illustrated exactly what would happen if a large commercial jet hit a nuclear reactor or the site's spent fuel pools, and because what would happen isn't pretty. Maybe they've chosen inaction because they don't want to alarm the public.

Whatever their excuse is, there's no reason for Charlotte-Mecklenburg and the surrounding counties to chose ignorance and inaction as well. This is a very serious situation, not just an excuse for a press conference.

It's not a question of whether terrorists will strike again, but where and how. They didn't go to the effort of obtaining the nuclear plant diagrams we found in Afghanistan for nothing. Making a nuclear target out of our plants has crossed their minds. They've yet to act on it, but that doesn't mean they won't.

Isn't that enough excuse for our local officials -- who preside over the only county in the country with two plants within a 50-mile radius -- to at least bother to reassess their emergency plans in between feel-good media events? Isn't it? Or is it that they're not too worried about what might happen in the event of a terrorist attack on our plants because they already know how they'll get out?

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