Concerns about how and whether people would be able to evacuate if there were a radiation leak at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant emerged at an emergency preparedness discussion by the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The county’s emergency plans call for residents in danger of exposure to radiation from a Diablo Canyon leak to either evacuate or create a shelter where they are, known as sheltering in place. Supervisor Adam Hill said he is concerned about traffic congestion on Highway 101, noting that even a car show in Pismo Beach can cause highway slowdowns.
“We have plans on paper, but when you have panic, it’s not something you can train for,” he said.
Several members of the public agreed, saying that a radiation leak at Diablo Canyon would most likely be caused by an earthquake, which could damage roads as well. The disastrous earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan last month showed how difficult it is to plan for multiple large-scale disasters.
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“This problem is unsolvable,” Linda Seeley of San Luis Obispo said.
Supervisors agreed to schedule a full discussion of evacuation planning at a later meeting. Tuesday’s discussion was the first in what is likely to be a series of overviews of emergency preparedness in the aftermath of the tragedy in Japan.
County Administrator Jim Grant, who also heads the county’s Office of Emergency Services, said local officials would benefit from the fact that Diablo Canyon is surrounded by a six-mile buffer zone that could allow some extra time to implement evacuation plans.
One challenge of evacuation planning is the fact that officials cannot hold a full-scale drill with some people actually leaving the area.
“It would be incredibly disruptive, and I don’t know how we would do that,” Grant said.
The disaster in Japan unfolded gradually, which gave emergency officials and residents there some time to react, Grant said.
Tracey Vardas, an emergency planner at Diablo Canyon, said studies have shown that panic can be avoided if the public receives clear, timely and accurate emergency information from trusted officials.
Officials had an opportunity to use their emergency protocols for real March 11 when a series of small tsunamis spawned by the Japanese quake rolled ashore. Campers were evacuated from beaches and a reverse 911 system was used to alert residents in low-lying coastal areas, said Ron Alsop, county emergency services coordinator.
Because of Diablo Canyon, San Luis Obispo County has much better emergency planning than other counties of comparable size, Grant said. The county’s emergency planning budget is $1.5 million, with PG&E supplying nearly three-quarters of that amount.
Federal rules require that emergency plans be developed for a 10-mile radius around nuclear plants. State and local authorities decided to expand the emergency planning zone around Diablo Canyon. Diablo Canyon’s zone extends from 18 to 22 miles, said Kelly Van Buren, a county emergency services planner. The larger zone allows more agencies to be brought into the planning process, she said.
Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.