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Nuclear Disaster's 'Heroes'?

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If a nuclear accident ever threatens the pastoral countryside around New Hampshire's Seabrook power plant, Les Shepard knows exactly what he will do--he'll find his wife and two children and flee the area.

State emergency officials, however, have other plans. If a nuclear accident occurs during school hours, they expect Mr. Shepard and his fellow teachers to stay with their students, riding with them on the school buses that are supposed to come and take them all away.

Mr. Shepard is a language-arts teacher at the Seabrook Elementary School, less than two miles from the still-unopened nuclear plant, which has been a source of considerable controversy in the area for more than 10 years. Like many residents, he is concerned about the dangers of nuclear power and hopes the plant never opens.

But if it does, and an accident--like the 1979 incident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island reactor--ever occurs, Mr. Shepard says he has no intention of staying put, plan or no plan. Nor, he says, will the overwelming majority of the 300 teachers in the Seacoast Education Association, of which he is the president.

"We polled our membership and we couldn't find anyone who was interested in sticking around," Mr. Shepard says. "It's just human nature. If something like that happens, you want to be with your family."

An Anti-Nuclear Tactic

The decision by Mr. Shepard and his colleagues to reject the state's evacuation plan has become part of a prolonged and complicated campaign by anti-nuclear activists to keep Seabrook from ever opening.

The issue of what responsibilities educators have in a nuclear emergency is one that could arise elsewhere, as utility companies seek to bring expensive nuclear plants "on line" in the face of heated opposition from local residents.

Of the 74 nuclear facilities now in operation or under construction, only 49 have approved emergency plans. Three plants, including Seabrook, have been denied permission to operate because of disputes over their plans, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Another 22 facilities have temporary approval to operate even though they lack plans. These plants predate the Three Mile Island accident, which prompted federal officials to greatly expand the evacuation zones around commercial reactors.

The potential for conflicts stems from the fact that nearly all nuclear-plant emergency plans assume that teachers and other school personnel will play a vital role in any evacuation, if an accident occurs during school hours.

Under federal law, state officials must develop an evacuation plan for the area around a nuclear plant before it can begin operation. They must also prove to fema and to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the plan will work.

At Seabrook and several other communities around the nation, anti-nuclear activists have seized upon the objections of teachers like Mr. Shepard, arguing that their re4fusal to supervise school evacuations is a fatal flaw in the state's emergency plans.

"They are relying on the law of the jungle," says Paul McEachern, a New Hampshire lawyer who is involved in the Seabrook debate. "They assume that everybody is going to make a run for it and that there will be a few heroes, like the teachers. It's not good planning."

Last year, Mr. McEachern challenged the state's evacuation plan in court. Arguing on behalf of the small town of Hampton, which is located near the Seabrook plant, he won a ruling this summer from a state superior court that clarified the right of teachers not to participate in an evacuation.

"The governor, through the state civil-defense agency, lacks the power to conscript private citizens to carry out the [evacuation plan] in the event of radiological emergency," the court ruled.

Participation Still Expected

Despite the decision, emergency officials in New Hampshire and other states say they will continue to rely on teacher participation in their evacuation planning.

"I cannot see, under any set of circumstances, that principals, teachers, guidance counselors and the rest of a school's staff are going to cut and run and leave a whole building full of children," says John Gifford, a spokesman for the New Hampshire Office of Emergency Management. "That just doesn't happen in our country."

Peter Agnes, a top Massachusetts emergency-planning official, argues that teachers have an "inherent requirement" not to abandon their students in any emergency, whether it is a fire in the building, a tornado, or a nuclear accident.

But, he acknowledges that "there can be reasonable disagreement over what the extent of that duty is. Teachers are not under an obligation to sacrifice their lives."

Mr. Agnes argues that more careful planning and clearer communication with local school authorities can eliminate or at least reduce the fears that teachers may have about their role in an emergency. Massa8chusetts, for instance, is currently revamping its plan for the Pilgrim nuclear plant on the state's southeastern coast.

The goal, Mr. Agnes says, is to clarify exactly what is required of education employees.

"It's important that teachers understand what roles other officials are playing," he says. "They should not be expected to do the jobs of policeman, or of civil-defense officials."

A Lack of Success

To date, anti-nuclear activists have been unsuccessful in their attempts to use teacher opposition as a tool for blocking nuclear-plant emergency plans.

In New Hampshire, for instance, the state continues to insist that its evacuation plan is adequate, although objections from neighboring Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, who opposes the plan on other grounds, have so far kept Seabrook from opening.

A bid several years ago by local school officials to block emergency plans for California's Diablo Canyon plant also failed, according to Jeff Hamm, a civil-defense official in San Luis Obispo County.

Federal officials, meanwhile, say they have yet to hear any nuclear-evacuation objections from educators, but add that they continually monitor the ability of local and state officials to carry out their plans.

"If the teachers say they will not participate, then it is up to local officials to come up with alternatives. Those are the kinds of things we look at," says Bill McCada, a spokesman for fema, which reviews plant-evacuation plans and makes recommendations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Mr. Shepard, meanwhile, says the outcome of the ongoing debate over the Seabrook plan is not going to change his views or those of his colleagues.

"Whether someone puts us in this plan or not is pretty much irrelevent to us," he says. "We are sure that if there is an evacuation none of us are going to stick around to participate. And we think it's best to be upfront with parents about that."

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