Petition asks that kids be moved farther from nuclear plants

Eric Epstein, chairman of the watchdog group TMI Alert, wants schoolchildren to be moved 15 to 20 miles from a nuclear power plant during an emergency. AMIRAN WHITE/The Patriot-News
BY GARRY LENTON / Of The Patriot-News, 11/09/07 9:28 PM EST
UPDATED: 11/10/07 11:53 PM EST

If another nuclear emergency were declared at Three Mile Island, some parents might be swimming against the stream as they drive to pick up their kids from schools.

In such an emergency, some schoolchildren would be sent to pickup centers on the fringe of evacuation zones, raising concerns that parents trying to pick up their kids would slow traffic fleeing the danger.

The watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert petitioned the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to require pickup centers instead be at least five to 10 miles beyond the evacuation zones.

“This is a common-sense adjustment that will make the children more accessible to their parents,” said Eric Epstein, chairman of TMI Alert.

The group’s petition has the support of public officials, including Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed and state Rep. Eugene DePasquale, R-York.

Reed said he endorsed the recommendation because it would reduce confusion and traffic congestion during an evacuation. “There is likely nothing more disruptive than the prospect of parents streaming to a school building to pick up children, a process that would delay the evacuation of both students and their parents,” Reed wrote in a letter to the NRC.

The petition, filed this year, is under review by the NRC, said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman in the agency’s regional office in Philadelphia.

Current regulations, which allow pickup centers to be close to evacuation zones, “fail to meet the safety needs of school children” and thwart efforts by local planners to protect health and safety, DePasquale wrote the NRC.

After the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, federal regulators required communities to develop and test emergency plans that provide for the evacuation of everyone within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear plant.

What to do with schoolchildren and others who could be caught away from home is an integral part of that planning. All schools are required to have emergency plans outlining how they will move children to safety and where.

Michael Fedor, a Duncannon Borough Councilman and former schoolteacher in the Elizabethtown Area School District, said the NRC needs to make the changes. Elizabethtown is inside TMI’s evacuation zone, and Fedor was a member of the district’s emergency management team.

More study and more real-life testing of evacuation plans is needed, he said.

In the West Shore School District, those plans are outlined in the district’s handbook. Kids in schools within the evacuation zone would be bused to four district schools: Lemoyne Middle School, Cedar Cliff High School, Allen Middle School and Washington Heights Elementary School.

All of the buildings are less than three miles from the evacuation zone. Cedar Cliff is less than a mile away.

Suzanne Tabachini, spokeswoman for the West Shore School District, said the district would do whatever the NRC recommends.

Central Dauphin School District’s emergency plan calls for students to be taken to Central Dauphin Middle School on Locust Lane, about a mile outside the evacuation zone.

Private school students from Circle School, Infinity Charter School, Prince of Peace and St. Catherine also would be bused to the middle school.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency did not comment on TMI Alert’s petition.

“We will await the NRC to review the petition, the facts and the potential need for extending the perimeter for the relocation centers,” spokeswoman Maria Finn said.

“All we’re asking is that children be moved 15 to 20 miles from a nuclear power plant,” Epstein said. “As it stands now, you can be evacuated 10 miles and 1 inch.”

GARRY LENTON: 255-8264

Source: The Patriot-News