Friday, March 18, 2011

A Confusing Senate Hearing Yesterday!

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing yesterday on FEMA's readiness to deal with a catastrophic situation as currently underway in Japan. It should also be noted that Congressman Ed Markey sent a letter to the President asking who would lead the charge in a similar event in the USA. As facts drain out of Japan and the first week of effort has elapsed some data sets are now becoming obvious.

Perhaps up to 10 million Japanese citizens and residents directly impacted by the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation emanating from the nuclear power plants that lost coolant due to the tsunami. Although shut down after the earthquake none of the reactors had problems until the waves came ashore.

First, neither FEMA nor any of its predecessors has dealt with an incident or event where mass care and evacutions of the size now evident in Japan is occurring. Even medical care in short supply throughout HONSHU the world's sixth largest Island, larger than Great Britain including England, Scotland and Wales, so this is a large event for that large island. Really the heartland of Japan.

Certainly the trigger event of a major earthquake in Southern California or perhaps a New Madrid could involve a population of 10 million although that has not been specifically studied to my knowledge. A vulcano might just impact through its release into the atmosphere of a dust cloud a wide swath of the USA and also that large a population.

The bottom line is I am not quite certain what the Senators were asking and what their definition of castrophic was in fact. If Japan is the defining type of event there are some reasons why that particular event is unlikely to occur in the USA. Remember that Chernobyl was a coremelt accident and has impacted for perhaps the next 500 years (well now 475)an area that if that plant was overlayed on STATEN ISLAND would impact the area from Boston to Washington,D.C. easily encompassing the 10 Million criteria. Indian Point Nuclear Power station would never be sited today in such a large population center for example.

The spent fuel pools are increasingly the problem for the Japanese. This situation also exists in the USA because of the YUCCA mountain contretemps and its deficiencies geologically speaking for a 10,000 year repository.

But most of what concerned me was the fact that whenever possible Administrator Craig Fugate testified as to the responsibility and accountability of almost everyone and every organization but FEMA. I am not sure if he as read closely HSPD-5, the NRF, the NRP, the FRERP and Executive Order 12657 but he is directly accountable for evacuations around nulear power plants if they go to General Alert and the NRC is NOT repeat not responsible for anything involving mass care of offsite saftey.

What is a key issue missed by all in the hearing that should have been asked and answered is the relationship between the so-called Price-Anderson Act guaranteeing a federal limit on liability for the nuclear power industry and now up for revision and the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. That relationship is not actually FEMA's to determine but should be analyzed by OLC of the Department of Justice.
A Presidential Commission on Respone to a Catstrophic Nuclear Accident concluded that there was no duplication or overlap between these statutes because in fact the Robert T. Stafford Act had no application to a nuclear incident or accident. This lead NEMA and others to suggest that radiological incidents/events be specifically added to the Stafford Act. This approach was rejected by Congress and several administrations. Why because FEMA and NRC issued a joint document I believe numbered NUREG 1437 saying the Stafford Act could be utilized in a severe catstrophic radiological emergency. So that is where it stands today. And who knows, none know and apparently that is what is wanted. This directly undermines the notion that tough issues are worked out in advance of the catastrophe to the extent know. Each GC of FEMA I worked for I asked to formally resolve this issue by asking OLC to address it. By this post I again ask the FEMA Chief Counsel Brad Keiserman to address it. It probably will take several years for OLC to decide how and what it will answer but at least it will be off FEMA's back. Perhaps the Congress could also ask for a ruling? Or the Union of Concerned Scientists could ask the courts for a declaratory injuction.

And of course as always and now demonstrated in Japan fate might just intervene.