Nuclear Regulation:

Progress Made in Emergency Preparedness at Indian Point 2, but Additional Improvements Needed

GAO-01-605: Published: Jul 30, 2001. Publicly Released: Aug 9, 2001.

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Consolidated Edison Company shut down the Indian Point 2 commercial nuclear power plant in February 2000 because a tube had ruptured in a steam generator, raising the possibility that radioactively contaminated water could leak into the environment. In this case, the total amount of radioactivity released posed no threat because the amount of radioactivity released was about one thousandth of the dose an individual receives from a chest X-ray. However, in the event of a more serious emergency at Indian Point 2, protecting the public from a radioactive release presents more substantial challenges because the plant is located in a heavily populated area. This report reviews issues associated with emergency preparedness protocols associated with the plant. GAO found that a more proactive approach to correct recurring weaknesses could have improved the emergency preparedness plan during the February 2000 emergency. This emergency demonstrated the importance of effective, clear communication networks, both on-site regarding the need to ensure that pagers work well to notify key personnel of an emergency, as well as off-site, regarding communication about the extent and magnitude of the emergency. Exercises, although playing a valuable role in preparing for and assessing radiological emergency readiness, more than likely will not identify the human reactions and all communications issues that could arise in a real radiological emergency. In this regard the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) interact interactions with the states for routine communications needs to be reassessed--at least for the 17 states where another entity is responsible for radiological emergency responses. The lack of knowledge by the four Indian Point counties regarding the flexibility in FEMA's regulations to spend more time at various emergency levels and its proposed streamlined exercise process demonstrate that FEMA's reliance on the state to communicate with the local communities did not work in this case.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC conducted an assessment of the agency's policies for non-emergency communication between state and local officials. NRC conducted several briefings with local officials to provide information, and provided early notifications to Congressional, state, and local officials of significant activity and correspondence with the licensee. Outreach efforts were made in January 2001, using tabletop emergency exercises to familiarize New York State, county, utility, and FEMA with appropriate emergency response roles. After assessing the agency's policies, NRC concluded that the policies for non-emergency communication between state and local officials is adequate, but that NRC will maintain an "open door" policy with regard to access by the public, state, and local officials to the NRC's staff.

    Recommendation: Since the responsibility for responding to radiological emergencies at a large percentage of this nation's nuclear power plants rests with an entity other than the state, the Commissioners of NRC should direct NRC staff to assess the agency's position of communicating with state officials during nonemergency situations.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On September 24, 2002, FEMA and NRC conducted an exercise at the Indian Point facility to determine whether plans and procedures for responding to a radiological emergency at the facility could be implemented to protect facility personnel and the general public. NRC was responsible for evaluating onsite emergency response, and FEMA was responsible for evaluating offsite response. According to FEMA staff, the exercise provided the opportunity to test its communications with state and local governments to determine how well it had implemented GAO's recommendation. In a March 2003 testimony, the FEMA official stated that the agency had responded to GAO's recommendation by communicating with the counties and the state simultaneously, and greatly increasing communications with the four surrounding counties, with the state's concurrence, through frequent meetings and other forms of communication.

    Recommendation: To improve communications with local governments, the Director of FEMA should determine the reasons the four counties responsible for emergency response at Indian Point 2 are not knowledgeable about FEMA's initiatives and, if necessary, reassess its current practice of communicating through the state during nonemergency situations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response

 

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