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Pataki, Witt and the Indian Point Nuke


By hiring James Lee Witt to conduct a “public, independent review” of Indian Point’s emergency evacuation plan, Governor George Pataki has guaranteed the outcome: the controversial nuclear plant will stay open. On August 1, 2002, Governor Pataki announced he was commissioning an independent review of the emergency preparedness plan for the Indian Point nuclear plant in Westchester County. In the midst of increasing political pressure to close the plant, the Governor declared, “We rule out no option.” He added that he would defer his decision on Indian Point’s safety until after December, 2002, the date the independent review would be delivered. This allows the Governor to campaign for re-election without taking a position on an issue of extreme importance to many New York State voters.

The credibility of Governor Pataki’s approach depends on the public’s belief that the safety review will be an “independent, balanced examination,” unaffected by politics. Thus, the Republican Governor authorized New York State to pay $800,554 to a Democrat, James Lee Witt of James Lee Witt Associates. Between 1993 and 2001, Mr. Witt served as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under President Bill Clinton, and his experience in emergency preparedness goes back to the 1980’s.

But a closer look at Witt’s career reveals that his expertise is in reviewing and approving emergency preparedness plans. James Lee Witt has never recommended that a nuclear plant be closed ? and has repeatedly okayed evacuation plans, including Indian Point’s. To put it another way, Governor Pataki’s appointee has never met a nuclear reactor that he didn’t think could be evacuated.

James Lee Witt grew up in Dardanelle, Arkansas, a town of 3,500 that lies directly across the Arkansas River from Units 1 and 2 of Arkansas Nuclear One. These nuclear plants were built by Arkansas Power and Light Company and are presently owned and operated by Entergy, the same utilities company that owns and operates Indian Point.

After graduating from Dardanelle High School, Witt founded Witt Construction, a commercial and residential building company in 1968. That same year, a construction permit was issued for Arkansas Unit 1, followed four years later by Unit 2. Witt managed his construction company for twelve years, during which time the reactors helped make utilities one of the area’s top three employers and a major contributor to the local tax base. Arkansas Unit One went on line in 1974, Unit Two in 1980.

In 1979, Witt became County Judge of Yell County, the area’s chief elected official. He served six terms in this position. In 1988, then-Governor Bill Clinton appointed Witt director of the Arkansas State Office of Emergency Services. (Clinton would later describe Witt as “a county judge in a county where all the Clintons came from.”) For five years, Witt coordinated the preparedness, response and evacuation capabilities for Entergy’s reactors. Simultaneously, he was chairperson of the Arkansas State Nuclear Advisory Board.

When President Clinton entered the White House in 1993, he appointed Witt head of FEMA. Following the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, FEMA had become the lead federal agency in charge of nuclear power plants’ off site emergency response plans. According to the Memorandum of Understanding between FEMA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the NRC uses FEMA’s findings on emergency evacuation preparedness and plans to make its decision not only about issuing licenses but taking enforcement actions including “violations, civil penalties, orders, or shutdown of operating reactors.”

Federal law requires FEMA to test each site’s emergency preparedness plans every two years. During Witt’s leadership, FEMA tested and commented upon hundreds of exercises nationwide without ever recommending that a nuclear plant be closed. Indian Point, in particular, regularly received FEMA approval for its Emergency Response Plan. For example in 1996, with Witt as its director, FEMA’s regional office signed off on Indian Point’s evacuation plan as “adequate to protect the health and safety of the public living in the vicinity of the plant.” In June 1998, Indian Point conducted its tenth emergency evacuation test, and FEMA approved its performance — as it had all previous tests.

At the recent (September 24, 2002) mock drill at Indian Point, the Governor again remarked on Witt’s “outside, objective review.” As a paid consultant, James Lee Witt commented, “A realistic plan dealing with the possibility of terrorism has to look at every possibility from the shortest time frame to the longest.”

What Mr. Witt and Governor Pataki apparently refuse to consider is that there may be no realistic plan for evacuating Indian Point. Under the guise of commissioning an independent review that includes the option of closing Indian Point, Governor Pataki has bought himself time. That is more than the citizens of New York will be able to do should there be an accident at Indian Point.

DANIEL WOLFF is the author of The Memphis Blues Again and You Send Me: the Life and Times of Sam Cooke.

He can be reached at:


Daniel Wolff‘s new book of poems is The Names of Birds.

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