The Human Factor Can Make or Break Nuvclear-Accident Plans
The emergency plans developed by school systems that have had to face the possibility--however remote--that they might be enveloped in a communitywide nuclear crisis, vary from locality to locality depending principally upon the site of the reactor and the geography of the community.
But they share important common elements--primarily, a reliance upon a human network that requires school officials, parents, and other citizens to follow agreed-upon guidelines.
For example, if an accident that could jeopardize the public safety occurs during school hours at the Indian Point reactors--both closed at present--in Westchester County, N.Y., Edmund S. Burchman, business administrator for the Hendrick Hudson Central School District in Montrose, N.Y., receives a telephone call from state officials at the same time that they notify the county emergency-planning officials.
Mr. Burchman, who is designated the "liaison" for all 15 school districts within a 10-mile radius, proceeds to a "communication center" in nearby White Plains, where he makes the first in a series of telephone calls to school superintendents who, in turn, notify other administrators. Initially, the directive would probably be to keep children inside and close the windows, Mr. Burchman said.
If the situation worsened, however, state officials could order an evacuation. In that case, students would be transported from their schools to "host schools" outside the 10-mile radius, according to Mr. Burchman.
Evacuations, Mr. Burchman and other school officials acknowledge, are complex processes requiring extensive planning. "A very elaborate plan has been devised," Mr. Burchman said, noting also that the plan has "some kinks."
Some of the kinks pertain to transportation; the Hendrick Hudson district, for ex-ample, has enough buses to transport its elementary-school students, but must rely on private contractors to transport the middle-school and high-school students.
David S. Siegel, superintendent in the nearby Croton-Harmon School District, which has about 1,400 students, notes that problems could arise if bus drivers who are also parents do not report for bus-driving duty during an evacuation.
Officials are also concerned that a panic reaction among parents will impair the smooth flow of the plan. "All this presupposes that parents are not going to panic," Mr. Burchman said. "That's a big question."
District officials have worked with parents, advising them of the evacuation plans, he said. "We have indicated that if a parent wants to get his child, we certainly aren't going to stand in the way."
In addition, some officials are worried that host schools will not be ready to receive the students. When the plan was an-nounced, Mr. Siegel said, he discovered that his host schools in White Plains were not aware of their new role until he told them.
Mr. Siegel said that he is also concerned that general traffic snarl-ups could compound the evacuation problems.
"At this point in time," he said, "we believe that the plan has too many flaws to be accepted."
Administrators in both districts have taken steps to inform parents of the plan, and to notify them of the place to which their children would be evacuated in the event of an accident.
They have also discussed the situation with teachers, some of whom have personal objections to the county's method of dealing with an accident. "We've discussed the obligation to provide for the safety of the children," Mr. Siegel said. "They've responded in what I view as a responsible manner" and have expressed their commitment to the safety of their students should an emergency occur."
In the vicinity of the Zion reactor, located near Chicago, officials would follow similar "telephone-chain" procedures for notifying school officials, according to William L. Thompson, regional superintendent of schools for Lake County and emergency-transportation coordinator for the approximately 120 schools within the 10-mile-radius emergency-planning zone.
However, the emergency-planning process is complicated, he noted, because the plant is located four miles from Wisconsin. Hence, officials from the two states must coordinate their efforts.
The emergency plan for the Zion reactor does not include a provision permitting parents to pick up their children; it directs that they be reunited in evacuation centers later.
Mr. Jones of the state emergency services and disasters office defends that system, but Mr. Thompson believes parents might disregard the instruction. "I think that if it [an accident requiring evacuation] ever happens, it will be organized chaos," he said. "Parents will run to the school to get Johnny."
Some parents in the Zion area have voiced objections to this--and other--aspects of the plan. "The thing that I objected to most is that the parents were instructed not to pick up kids," said Nancy Hill, a parent whose child attends a school near the reactor.
"No one is going to follow that instruction. There isn't a mother or father in the world who [when the siren goes off] isn't going to get into the car and drive to school," she said. "I don't think the methods they describe [in the plan] are adequate. I think they're totally ignoring the human element."
Mr. Jones of the state emergency-planning office, however, said that rehearsals involving limited numbers of schoolchildren went well. "In the case of the schools, we found the students were just marvelous. They accepted it, they were cheerful. The teachers did a great job."
In Berwick, Pa., which lies near a Pennsylvania Power and Light reactor that is scheduled to begin operation in the spring of 1983, school officials are well into the emergency-planning process, according to David L. Force, superintendent for the Berwick Area School District.
As is the case in other districts, plans will vary with the severity of the potential accident, ranging from keeping everyone inside to the evacuation stage.
Initially, Mr. Force said, the plan called for students to remain in school and to be transported to an evacuation site if that is necessary. But officials subsequently decided to let parents retrieve their children after officials have received the notice that an evacuation will be necessary.
The change was made, Mr. Force said, because parents objected to the original procedure and because officials from the state's emergency-management agency confirmed that allowing parents to pick up their children was acceptable.
Mr. Force noted that the district's plan may change, depending on how frequently alerts occur. Initially, he said, officials will dismiss children from school when an alert is called, primarily to reassure the community.
Should the alerts occur often, but not lead to evacuations, classes could continue uninterrupted.
Rehearsals of the plan, which have included only limited numbers of children, have gone well, according to Mr. Force. "Things seem to be down pretty pat," he added, pointing to the fact that school officials received positive feedback from the emergency-management personnel who observed the exercise.
State, school, and industry officials all stressed that communication--with parents, students, and staff--is a key factor in the success of the plans.
"I think it's important for the school staff and students to have as much understanding as they can, so the sense of mystery is dispelled. The more we understand something, the less we fear it," said Mr. Arnold of gpu Nuclear, Inc.
"The key word to me is 'communication,"' said Mr. Burchman of the Hendrick Hudson schools. "You must be able to communicate within the district and with county officials. I'm sure that if things had been planned like this at Three Mile Island, there wouldn't have been as much concern."
The hardest part of planning, he said, is "trying to get a working understanding between parents and school officials." Nevertheless, he said, parents should be included in the planning process. Not only do they offer some excellent ideas, but if included in the planning, they also develop a proprietary interest in the plan's success, he said.
Mr. Burchman, who can see the towers of the Indian Point reactors from his office window, said the presence of the reactors in the district does not really prey on his mind. "I know that administrators in my schools feel comfortable. If the real thing happened, our kids would react normally and not panic."
Mr. Jones of Illinois stressed that school administrators should be very familiar with the emergency plans. "They should be very clear in understanding their responsibilities,should protective action for their building be required," he said. "They should be acquainted with the plan entirely. Most important, they can act as good, exemplary leaders and not cause any alarmist reactions among students."
In Illinois, he noted, the state "tries very hard to provide training for school administrators. I would urge the school people to attend those training sessions."
"There may well be events at nuclear plants that require evacuation, but it is extremely unlikely that they'd require such a fast response that they'd need to panic," said Mr. Arnold. "The planning can be done and can lead to an effective response, should a response be necessary."
Others, however, are more cautious. Officials in regions where nuclear reactors are under construction, noted Mr. Siegel, should beware of inadequate emergency plans.
"Don't license the plant until you're guaranteed that there's a plan that will work," he said, adding that he was not convinced that any plan would work. "I don't envy anyone in a situation like Three Mile Island," he noted.
If an accident occurs, "Prepare for parents, who are going to be extremely upset at that point," said Mr. Calabrese of Middletown. "In 1979, we didn't have an emergency plan. Now we do," he said. "Maybe people would be more calm. Maybe not."