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Nuclear plant evacuation plan raises concerns

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 7:20 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Eric Epstein would not wish for a Three Mile Island disaster to prove his argument that the region is unprepared for the subsequent traffic jam.

He'll settle for Thursday's tanker truck explosion that paralyzed traffic across much of the Harrisburg area.

“It's pretty obvious the accident (Thursday) exposed the weakness in the evacuation from a nuclear accident,” said Epstein, founder of the TMI Alert watchdog group.

He views the incident as a “bookend” to the 2007 winter weather-related snarl that stranded hundreds for more than a day along a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 78. Both prove the potential for people to get stuck while trying to flee the area.

Epstein said emergency officials must look at possible remedies to such gridlock and plan to meet the medical needs of people locked in traffic. Medical issues could range from people's being exposed to radiation to running out of diabetes medication as they sit in cars.

“There is no magic bullet. But to continue to plan as if these events didn't occur is irresponsible,” he said.

Steve Libhart, director of the Dauphin County Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday's accident was unique in that one crash shut down more than one roadway.

Still, the slow grind in traffic could be a preview for what would happen if there ever were a need for a mass evacuation, he said.

“When you get into an evacuation scenario, you should not expect traffic to flow like it does on a normal day,” Libhart said.

Emergency planners know that, he said. Those sort of potential delays are built into evacuation plans, with differing routes favored based on traffic flow and the sort of emergency faced.

It's also important to note, Libhart said, when an evacuation might not be necessary.

If there were an incident at TMI, for example, many scenarios would encourage residents to shelter in place, since a home or building offers more protection than a car. If an extreme event required evacuation, Libhart said, the weather and wind likely would dictate who would be moved and in which directions.

Others contend it's unknown how people will react, and that's cause for concern.

Following the 1979 TMI accident, for example, about 144,000 people evacuated, including many living well outside the 10-mile zone.

They did so, even though there was no general evacuation order.

The only people told to evacuate were pregnant women and preschoolers within five miles of the plant— a group numbering about 5,000.

The Government Accountability Office this year issued a report citing the possible need for more planning outside the standard 10-mile emergency zone surrounding nuclear power plants.

The GAO recommended that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees disaster response plans, learn more about how people outside the 10-mile zone will react in a disaster.

The GAO said there's reason to believe that 20 percent of people in nearby areas that are not ordered to evacuate will decide to leave anyway. Their efforts to flee might impede those of people closer to the disaster.

Further, because they live outside the 10-mile planning zone, they are likely unaware of evacuation plans publicized within the zone, so it's unclear how they will react and whether they will follow instructions, the GAO said.

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