By Donella Meadows
–December 10, 1987–
A lot of things about nuclear power make me mad, but nothing makes me madder than the way its bureaucrats make ordinary citizens feel small.
Suppose you live in Seabrook, New Hampshire, and you decide to go to the hearings on the evacuation plan for the just-finished Seabrook nuclear plant. It’s a matter you might have an interest in — you are a potential evacuee.
You go to the Statehouse and find that you have to pass through a metal detector and allow your briefcase to be searched before you can enter the hearing room.
Having been certified free of dangerous devices, you pass into the chamber where three judges sit on high. Behind them are arrayed the 32 white-bound volumes of the evacuation plan.
In the front row facing the judges are officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the State of New Hampshire, and the utilities that own the plant. Behind them is a row of “intervenors” who oppose the plant and believe the evacuation plan is unworkable. They represent the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the towns in the evacuation zone.
As a citizen you sit farther back. This hearing is about the safety of you and your family. Your cooperation will be essential in case of a real evacuation. But only the first two rows have microphones. You are not allowed to speak.
If you have a criticism of the plan, you should have filed it as a contention months ago. Only cross-examination is permitted now. If you are not familiar with the thousands of pages of pre-filed testimony, you will have a hard time following the discussion. This hearing is not designed to be interesting or informative to the press or the casual observer.
Still, it’s amazing how many observers there are and how intently they follow the proceedings. The people in the front row are doing their jobs; the people at the back are defending the safety of their homes and families. Many of them have struggled through the technical language and know as much about the plan as the experts. They could contribute a lot to the discussion, if they were asked.
The experts up front wrangle over how many parking places there are at Hampton Beach. The folks who live at Hampton Beach could help them out. The experts have assumed that traffic will be rerouted through an intersection where you know there’s a median strip in the way. The experts testify that everyone will cooperate in an emergency. Your own common sense tells you that someone is likely to panic or screw up.
Parking places and emergency behavior are important, because one of the crucial numbers in the plan is the ETE, the Estimated Time of Evacuation. The front-row experts say you can get away in six hours at most, the second-row intervenors says you’ll be lucky to do it in twelve.
It may occur to you to ask one of those dumb questions ordinary citizens ask. What’s a safe ETE? Is there some time beyond which you will be in real trouble if you don’t get out?
Silly question. There is no standard for a safe ETE. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has never defined any measure by which one can say that this evacuation plan does or does not adequately protect the public safety.
What’s the purpose of the hearing then? Stick around and listen. It will become obvious by the bias of the rules and the jokes between the judges and the front row that there’s just one purpose — to license the plant.
The NRC will ask friendly questions of witnesses for the utilities and hostile questions of witnesses for the intervenors. The chairman will coach the front-row lawyers to make objections and cut off damaging testimony. Any mention of a fire or radiation release will be stifled, on the grounds that such an accident is not believable. No testimony will be admitted about what population growth might do to the ETE, though in this rapidly-growing seacoast region the number of evacuees could easily quadruple over the lifetime of the plant.
The judges have even disallowed a serious line of testimony about how many people might get radiation sickness during the evacuation. This is an evacuation plan, they say, not a medical plan. (What if people get so sick, that they aren’t able to direct traffic or to drive? Don’t ask dumb questions.)
The big question that will pop into your head is the most inadmissable of all. Why wasn’t the problem of evacuation considered way back when the plant site was chosen, rather than now, when the plant is complete?
Actually you know the answer. If people like you had thought about evacuation back then, if you had been drawn into the process of planning, if your opinions mattered, the plant would never have been built.
Everything about this hearing, from the metal detector at the door to the technicality of the language, is designed to intimidate you. If you’re the kind of person who easily feels small, you’ll get the message and go away.
Some of your neighbors have stuck it out, some of them for fifteen years of this kind of treatment. They may have started feeling small, but now they feel mad, cynical, frustrated, determined, and ultimately sad. In a democracy things shouldn’t work this way.
We ordinary citizens are capable of understanding and deciding on even such technical matters as nuclear power. How and when did we give up our responsibility for our energy system and our safety? How are we going to get it back?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987