Towns near Yankee plant say evacuation concerns go unresolved

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(Host) Twenty years ago the owners of Vermont Yankee commissioned a plan for getting people to safety if there were a nuclear accident. The plan is supposed to be a shared effort among the plant, the state and the people. But lately, some of the people in southeastern Vermont are wondering if they’re having their say.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) People in the towns closest to Vermont Yankee get regular reminders that there’s a nuclear power plant in the neighborhood. (Sound of emergency siren.) There’s the monthly test of the alert sirens in Brattleboro. Once a year everyone in the plant’s ten-mile emergency planning zone gets a Vermont Yankee calendar in the mail. It contains instructions in case of a radiological emergency.

If an evacuation is called for, people in Vermont towns near the plant would drive north on the interstate to Bellows Falls Union High School. There they’d be decontaminated and reunited. According to the plan, schoolchildren would be evacuated first. But a recent test of that part of the plan did little to inspire public confidence. Hundreds of kids were left waiting for school buses that never arrived.

Local people are also used to antinuclear activists, like these, outside the Brattleboro Co-op.

(Woman) “Would you like to sign a post card to Governor Douglas? It’s about the evacuation plan.”
(Man) “Here, I can make a donation too.”

(Keese) This time the complaints are not only from activists. Herb Meyer is a retired police chief from Guilford. For the past decade he’s been his town’s volunteer director of emergency planning. He says a lot of different issues have come up, like outdated phone numbers and the fact that some residents of Guilford are supposed to drive toward the plant instead of away from it.

Changes to the plan have to be approved by Vermont Emergency Management. And Meyer says it’s taken nearly two years for the agency to respond to his suggestions.

(Meyer) “Any changes that I have put forth, I don’t know whether they’ve been implemented or not because I don’t have them back.”

(Keese) In Dummerston, Selectwoman Cindy Jerome says there are concerns, too:

(Jerome) “Having enough volunteers in place to enact the plan, evacuations routes being clear despite bad weather or accidents, kids being at school and getting to safety and parents trusting that that’s going to work. Notification is a big thing.”

(Keese) For years Vermont Yankee has made alert radios available to towns like Dummerston, where Yankee’s sirens can’t be heard. The radios are widely considered unreliable. The plant is working on the situation.

(Jerome) “In the meantime, we haven’t signed off on the plan and it really doesn’t seem to have affected anything one way or another.”

(Keese) This year, local lawmakers said they wanted the state to withhold the yearly letter of certification for the evacuation plan. But the letter was sent to the federal Emergency Management agency. Kerry Sleeper, Vermont’s public safety commissioner says there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the certification.

(Sleeper) “The actual approval per se of the plan falls solely on FEMA. There’s nothing that I’m signing that says I certify this plan is anything other than the fact that we document what steps we have taken in the previous year to support the plan.”

(Keese) Sleeper says the certification letter included many of the towns’ concerns. He cites the fact that the state opened an office in Brattleboro last year and says that many other improvements are planned. He also says the proposed budget includes money for a western evacuation center, so that no one has to drive toward the plant.

Many local people are asking for a test of the entire plan, including getting transportation to nursing homes, hospitals and day cares. For now, plans are in the works for repeat tests of the Brattleboro School evacuation that failed earlier this winter. Progress on that will be known right away, because a test will be held on Tuesday.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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