Washington — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and states are debating over emergency evacuation plans. In a packed NRC hearing room earlier this week, NRC commissioners heard members of Congress and several governors strongly oppose a proposed regulation that they claim would diminish the rights of state and local governments to protect public health and safety.
The issue centers on a regulation passed soon after the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant accident.
After TMI, many officials and residents were surprised to learn that there was no emergency plan to evacuate citizens. To remedy this shortcoming, Congress passed legislation requiring emergency planning for all nuclear power plants. Since any evacuation plan would involve state and local equipment and personnel, Congress made sure these officials would be involved in the plan itself.
Some state and local officials - including Govs. Mario Cuomo of New York and Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts - have refused to work with utilities in developing the plans in the hopes of killing specific power plants. The Shoreham plant on Long Island and the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire are mostly completed, but their licensing has been held up by the governors' refusal to participate in planning.
The NRC would like to change the 1980 rule, allowing new nuclear facilities to begin operation even if local officials refuse to cooperate in a utility-drafted, NRC-approved plan.
Governor Cuomo testified at the NRC meeting Tuesday that the proposed rule change ``violates the historical and constitutional responsibility of state governments to protect the health and safety of their citizens.'' He called the NRC's proposal ``potentially dangerous,'' saying it ``reduces concern for public safety to the vanishing point.''
NRC chairman Lando W. Zech points out that the commission has not decided whether it will act on the proposed change suggested by NRC staff. The special meeting was simply an opportunity for the commission to hear the views of congressional and state officials.
In an internal briefing document prepared by the NRC staff, several points are made to respond to the anticipated objections to the rule change:
There is nothing in current NRC emergency planning requirements that compels a state or local government to participate in such planning, so there is no infringement on, or invasion of, state laws, prerogatives, and responsibilities.
The NRC presumes that local officials will use a utility's plan in an actual emergency - the commission does not expect utilities to assume police powers.
The proposed change would not detract from the rights of citizens and state and local governments to a hearing on emergency planning.
Current NRC rules stipulate that a nuclear reactor cannot be issued a license to operate unless ``there is reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the event of a radiological emergency.'' The rules further state that there must be ``reasonable assurance that they can be implemented.''
Since 1980, emergency plans have been completed and successfully tested at nearly every nuclear power plant site in the United States. But in a draft of the proposed rule change, the NRC complains that ``in a few cases, state or local governments have not developed an emergency plan of their own or cooperated with the utility in developing one.''
Since state and local officials would have to carry out emergency plans, their refusal to cooperate with utilities throws enough doubt on the requirement that protective measures ``will be taken'' as to prevent the issuing of the plant's operating license.
The NRC did not intend to give state and local officials veto power on whether a plant - approved in all other aspects of the licensing procedure - could begin operation. When rules for emergency planning were drafted in 1980, the NRC assumed that public officials would work with the utility to develop acceptable alternatives if objections were raised.
Under the proposed change, if an emergency plan is opposed, then the utility must demonstrate to the NRC that the lack of cooperation is the only deficiency in the evacuation plan, that the utility has made a ``good-faith and sustained'' effort to get cooperation, that the plan compensates for the lack of cooperation, and that copies of the plan are given to all relevant government authorities.
According to one industry source, the NRC is expected to issue the new rule and let the courts or Congress decide the issue. ``We expect the issue to go all the way to the Supreme Court,'' he said.