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Emergency Plans Made Mandatory After Three Mile Island

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When the news of a serious accident at the Three-Mile Island (tmi) nuclear power plant began to spread through the community on March 30, 1979, the 68 public and private schools within a 10-mile radius of the reactors were just starting their day.

Rumors of trouble had been circulating for two days, but neither school administrators nor anyone else had been forewarned by officials at gpu Nuclear, Inc., which operates the plant for the General Public Utility Corporation.

Many of the rumors turned out to be true; the problems at the reactor began Wednesday, March 28, 1979; they became public knowledge on Friday, March 30.

'I Want My Children'

"At 8:45 A.M. [Friday]," said Leon R. Calabrese, now director of instruction for the Middletown Area School District, but who was principal of G.W. Feaser Junior High School when the accident occurred, "I had a mother at the door saying, 'I want my children. We're leaving."'

That parent was followed by numerous others, also intent on removing their children from the vicinity of the power plant as quickly as possible. By 9 o'clock, when Mr. Calabrese tried to call district administrators for information and guidance, he found that his private telephone line was tied up. "That's how much the phone traffic increased," he said, "and that's how quickly it occurred. From that time on, we were just besieged."

The schools around the tmi nuclear power plant had no emergency-evacuation plans in 1979. Now, officials from those schools and hundreds of others that lie in close proximity to the nation's 72 licensed commercial nuclear reactors have been drawn into the process of planning for the possible evacuation or sheltering of thousands of children should a serious accident occur.

(In addition, construction permits have been granted for 71 other nuclear reactors, now in various stages of completion, according to the Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc., a coalition of nuclear industries.)

Provoked by the accident at tmi, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (nrc) now requires utility companies to provide detailed emergency plans before they can qualify for a license to operate a reactor.

Under the nrc regulations, which became final in August 1980, the companies are responsible for the technical management of an accident, protecting the safety of personnel, and monitoring the release of radiation into the environment. They must demonstrate that they have emergency plans for evacuating the actual site of the plant; that they have the capacity to notify, within 15 minutes, everyone within 10 miles of the plant; and that state and local agencies in the vicinity have adequate emergency plans to safeguard the well-being of area residents. As a result of these plans, school administrators have joined civil-defense and emergency-services planners in preparing to respond to an accident.

Evacuation Plan

"We've drawn up an evacuation plan that we hope we'll never have to use," Middletown's Mr. Calabrese said.

That plan, like those elsewhere, requires school officials to work under the direction of state and local emergency planners. In many cases, a designated person in the schools in a given area--the 10-mile radius around the plant, for example--receives a telephone call from an official in the state emergency planning office if the utility company reports an "unusual event" that could at some point jeopardize the health of the residents.

The school official is frequently third in line on the "telephone chain;" he or she is generally notified at the same time as other county officials.

Depending on the magnitude of the problem at the reactor, the school official may be required to wait for further information, or he or she may continue the telephone chain to other administrators in the area.

Protection from Radiation

The problem may require that principals in the vicinity keep all students indoors with the windows closed, which, experts say, would protect them from much radiation exposure. Or it may warrant an evacuation, which would be undertaken only if the risks of transporting the children through a potentially hazardous environment were less than the risks of leaving them where they were, according to state and local officials interviewed.

The number and location of schools that would be evacuated would depend also on the prevailing winds and other meteorological factors, emergency-planning officials said. Seldom, if ever, they said, would all schools within the 10-mile radius be affected.

Public-school, industry, and government representatives agree that the plans are essential whether or not they are ever needed. Robert C. Arnold, president of gpu Nuclear, Inc., notes also that "the confidence that the public has in the ability to execute [an emergency] plan is heavily dependent on the ability to evacuate the public schools."

School-evacuation planning is a special case, he said in a recent interview. "Concern about schoolchildren stems from the natural concern we all have for our families. It has to work or the rest of it might fall through."

But planning for nuclear alerts that occur during school hours--which constitute about 14 percent of the calender year, according to emergency planners in New York--are subject to the same pitfalls that affect all emergency planning.

"In order to do any kind of planning, you have to make assumptions, and if one of your assumptions is 180 degrees off, it throws your whole plan out of whack," said Steven C. Sholly, a technical research assistant for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The emergency planning required for schools also raises questions specific to their situation. For example, should parents be permitted to retrieve their children any time after the alert is given, or should they wait and be reunited at evacuation centers? If they are not permitted to pick up their children but decide to do so anyway, what do school officials do? If bus drivers are also parents, will they respond to the emergency by reporting for work or by going to their children's schools to pick them up?

Those involved disagree on some of these points. The evacuation plans that are developed, said Mr. Arnold of gpu, must recognize the strong desire that parents will naturally have either to be evacuated to the same place as their children or to be able to pick children up before an evacuation occurs. Part of the rationale of the plans, he said, is "simple traffic planning."

Mechanics of Evacuation

After such factors are taken into account, however, the mechanics of evacuating a school are no different from those involved in evacuating any other concentrated population, Mr. Arnold noted.

But Erie Jones, director of the emergency services and disasters agency for Illinois, said that emergency-planning research suggests that if parents are adequately informed of the plans in advance, they will be more comfortable knowing that their children have been evacuated safely. "There are always going to be parents who are concerned about their children, and they should be, that's natural," he added.

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