Could a Three Mile Island-related mass evacuation happen today?

“In 1979, we didn’t have nearly the population we have now. Traffic would be at a crawl.”

  • Ron Southwick , PennLive
This March marks the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. PA Post is collaborating with WITF and PennLive on a multimedia, monthlong look at the accident, its impact and the future of TMI and the nuclear industry. That includes new documentary television and radio programs, long-form audio stories, photos, and digital videos. The work will include the voices of people affected as well as community events to engage with listeners, readers and viewers.

 

(Harrisburg) — If a disaster at Three Mile Island requires an evacuation, those driving out of town may not be going much faster than 3 miles per hour.

When the Three Mile Island accident occurred in 1979, highways were choked with traffic as people desperately tried to leave. About 144,000 people evacuated from the Harrisburg area.

Forty years later, the Harrisburg area’s population is bigger and the region’s traffic is more congested. An evacuation today would be a daunting exercise filled with challenges, emergency officials say.

“In 1979, we didn’t have nearly the population we have now,” said Stephen Libhart, director of emergency management for Dauphin County. “Traffic would be at a crawl.”

About 135,000 people lived within 10 miles of TMI in 1979. Today, more than 226,000 people live in that 10-mile radius. Most of Dauphin, Cumberland, York and Lancaster counties sit beyond that 10-mile radius.

Some critics say there should be more preparation for those who live beyond the 10-mile radius around the plant called the “plume zone.” A federal report called for more planning outside the 10-mile zone, since many people beyond that radius would evacuate.

On the upside, emergency officials are far more prepared than they were in 1979. The Three Mile Island accident helped transform emergency management, officials said.

Emergency officials have more tools to aid evacuations today, including the Internet, cellphones and electronic billboards on highways. For years, emergency management teams have conducted exercises to plan for a nuclear plant emergency. Officials have planned for meltdowns in a blizzard and hostile forces taking the plant.

While officials acknowledge that the number fleeing could exceed expectations, there is also the challenge of mobilizing those who don’t want to leave. Emergency plans cover those who don’t drive, including seniors and those with disabilities. Those plans rely on the expected number of bus drivers actually showing up.

“The pace is going to be slow,” Libhart said. “There’s no denying that. My concern is human factors would slow the pace further.” And that, he said, can’t be planned for or controlled.

Libhart said he’s less concerned about the pace of an evacuation than getting everyone out as safely as possible.

While TMI could be shut down this year, Pennsylvania has four other nuclear plants. So questions of planning remain relevant, along with the need to respond to other emergencies that would require an evacuation.

Gene Puskar / The Associated Press

FILE PHOTO: Kathy Moody, top right, uses a cardboard box for a playpen for 13-month-old Christina while they wait in evacuation center at Hershey sports arena for radiation from the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant to stop, March 31, 1979.

Shadow evacuations

In 2013, a federal report sparked new debate about the planning for evacuations around nuclear plants.

The U.S. General Accounting Office published a report urging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do more preparations beyond a plant’s 10-mile radius. The report was driven by the 2011 disaster at a nuclear plant in Japan following an earthquake and a tsunami, leading to the evacuation of 150,000 people.

The GAO urged more planning for “shadow evacuations,” the people who would leave even if they weren’t told they had to go.

The report found that the NRC does not have strong data on how many people would evacuate outside the 10-mile radius. It’s critical because if many people 15 or 20 miles away decide to evacuate, they could clog up highways and make it more difficult for those closer to the plant who have to get away, the GAO found.

“We felt it was important for them to study that more,” said Frank Rusco, one of the authors of the GAO report.

Rusco noted the NRC has estimated 20 percent of those within 15 miles would evacuate, even without an order.

The GAO report recommended more education for those living more than 10 miles away. Those living within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear plant receive mailings on evacuation routes and procedures.

The NRC did not adopt the GAO’s recommendations. Based on its research, the NRC said shadow evacuations would have “no significant impact on traffic movement.”

Eric Epstein, chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, a non-profit group that has been long critical of the plant, contends officials should be assuming that people 25 to 50 miles away would evacuate.

“There’s no artificial lead barrier 10 miles from a nuclear power plant,” he said.

Without more education, those outside the 10-mile radius could travel in different directions than planners anticipate, Rusco said. Some could try to pick up children who attend schools inside the 10-mile zone.

“There certainly are reasons to study this more,” Rusco said.

Libhart, the Dauphin County emergency director, said that he knows people will pack up beyond TMI’s 10-mile radius.

“You’re going to actually be evacuating far more people” than those in the 10-mile zone, he said.

During the 1979 accident, then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh said that pregnant women and families with pre-school children within 5 miles of TMI should evacuate. People of all ages hit the road.

That’s a lesson learned from TMI, Libhart said. There’s little point telling only certain groups near the plant to evacuate.

“Once you do that, everyone on their own is going to evacuate,” Libhart said.

Shadow evacuations have been seen in hurricanes.

In 2017, about 6.8 million people fled Hurricane Irma in Florida. About 3 million of those who left were not in areas where they were ordered to evacuate, according to a Palm Beach Post report. Motorists were mired on Florida highways for hours.

Courtesty of PennDOT

Traffic near the Fishing Creek exit of I-83 in November 2018.

Highway headaches

The Harrisburg region’s highways don’t inspire confidence in an emergency, Epstein said.

“Look at Nov. 15 when people couldn’t get home for four hours in a snowstorm,” Epstein said.

In that storm, PennDOT said a host of factors slowed traffic. The snow fell heavily in the late morning, so schools and state offices dismissed early. The heavy traffic made it harder for plows to clear the roads and scores of accidents left some people stuck on interstates for as long as six hours.

Warmer weather brings other traffic trouble. Some key evacuation routes – Routes 30 and 15 – are choked with tourists from June through August, Epstein said. Likewise, roads around Hershey are jammed with out-of-town visitors.

While southern states have directed interstate traffic in one direction in hurricanes, that’s not a practical solution in central Pennsylvania, officials said.

Key interstates in Florida are north-south freeways and can more easily be used to send traffic north, said Stephen Bekanich, the deputy director for preparedness for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. They have gates that close ramps to keep the interstates one way, a feature Pennsylvania interstates don’t have, he said.

Bekanich and other officials said turning Pennsylvania’s interstates into one-way roads is possible, but it would require a lot of manpower, which would be at a premium in an evacuation. “To my knowledge, it’s never been done in Pennsylvania due to an emergency,” he said.

Libhart said planners have talked about utilizing Interstates 83 and 81 as one-way roads.

“The problem is the logistics of controlling the traffic,” he said. “There’s probably not enough manpower to do it.”

Jason Bewley, a traffic engineer for PennDOT, said turning interstates into one-way roads would be “very difficult.” He said it would possible to turn local roads, such as Cameron Street in Harrisburg, into one-way roads.

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