WASHINGTON, DC, April 11, 2013 (ENS) – The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission should look at evacuation plans for areas beyond a 10-mile radius around America’s nuclear power plants, the independent research branch of Congress advised Wednesday.

In a report requested by four senators, the Government Accountability Office, GAO, said that to better inform radiological emergency preparedness efforts, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to obtain information on public awareness and likely public response outside the current 10-mile evacuation zone, and incorporate insights into guidance.

St. Lucie

St. Lucie nuclear power plant located near Jensen Beach, Florida, 10 miles southeast of Ft. Pierce (Photo courtesy Florida Power & Light Co.)

Nationwide, each of the 65 operating commercial nuclear power plants has a 10-mile emergency planning zone around the plant; in total, these zones include at least 490 local and state authorities.

“Without better information on the public’s awareness and potential response in areas outside the 10-mile zone, [the Nuclear Regulatory Commission] may not be providing the best planning guidance,” the GAO report concluded.

The NRC disagreed with this finding, stating that its research shows public response outside the zone would generally have no significant impact on evacuations.

“While the NRC remains confident in the basis of the 10-mile emergency protection zone, we will be looking at the question of whether the zone should be expanded and public education/information efforts enhanced as part of our post-Fukushima review of nuclear power plant safety,” said the agency in a statement Wednesday.

The GAO report was prepared at the request of three Democratic senators and an Independent after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, releasing radiation and forcing evacuations within 19 miles of the plant.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, was one of those requesting the GAO report. “Clearly, this is a common sense recommendation after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima,” Boxer said. “After this tragedy, the Japanese government evacuated people within 19 miles of the damaged nuclear power plant, while the American government recommended that those within 50 miles evacuate.”

“It is of great concern to me that the NRC apparently plans to ignore GAO,” she said. “I urge them to follow the reasonable recommendations made in this report.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, said, “There are 23 reactors in the United States, including Vermont Yankee, with designs similar to the Fukushima reactor in Japan. Many of them are close to populated areas. The NRC needs to expand its emergency planning procedures to better protect all of the people living near nuclear reactors, not just those in the 10-mile zone.”

Vermont Yankee

Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, five miles from Brattleboro, Vermont (Photo courtesy NRC)

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the GAO report shows “we can, and must, do more to prepare for nuclear disasters.”

“Thousands of Rhode Islanders live within the 50-mile emergency planning zone of a nuclear power plant,” said Whitehouse. “Ensuring a safe evacuation for our citizens in the event of a disaster is absolutely vital, and I hope this report will spur additional action here in the U.S.”

Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said, “It is clear from this report that more needs to be done to know what residents who live outside of a 10-mile radius understand regarding appropriate emergency procedures and what they would do in the event of an emergency at a nuclear power plant.”

“Over 10 million Pennsylvanians, which is 80 percent of the population of the state, live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant,” said Casey. “Strong emergency plans are critical to make sure constituents remain safe in the event of an emergency and that shouldn’t stop at a 10-mile radius.”

The NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, are collectively responsible for providing radiological emergency preparedness oversight and guidance to commercial nuclear power plant licensees and local and state authorities around the plants. In general, NRC is responsible for overseeing licensees’ emergency preparedness on-site at the plants, and FEMA is responsible for overseeing preparedness by local and state authorities off-site around the plant.

Nuclear power plant licensees are responsible for managing on-site radiological emergency preparedness and developing and maintaining plans that define activities that the nuclear power plant must take to prepare for and respond to a potential incident at the plant.

Participating local and state authorities within the 10-mile zone must develop protective actions for responding to a radiological incident, including plans for evacuations and sheltering in place.

A recent NRC task force considered the adequacy of the zone size and concluded that no change was currently needed but said zone size will be re-evaluated as part of the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi incident.

On March 11, 2011, power to the nuclear plant’s cooling systems was blacked out when a massive earthquake off the Pacific coast of Japan’s Honshu Island touched off a tsunami that inundated the power plant. Nuclear fuel at three of the plant’s six reactors suffered meltdowns, which combined with hydrogen gas explosions in the damaged reactors, spread radiation far and wide. It was the largest release of radiation since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Japanese authorities evacuated at least 200,000 residents from a 30 kilometer (20 mile) radius around the damaged power plant. The U.S. government recommended that U.S. citizens evacuate from a 50 mile radius around the facility. Most evacuees are still not permitted back into the area.

In the United States, the NRC and FEMA review emergency plans developed by licensees and local and state authorities to ensure that planning standards are met.

NRC and FEMA also observe exercises for each plant that licensees and local and state authorities conduct every two years to demonstrate their ability to respond to an incident.

Indian Point

Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River at Buchanan, New York (Photo by Tony Fischer Photography)

NRC also requires licensees to develop estimates of how long it would take for those inside the 10-mile zone to evacuate under various conditions. Licensees are to provide these evacuation time estimates to local and state authorities to use when planning protective action strategies.

The nonprofit Riverkeeper monitors Entergy’s Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York, less than 30 miles from the Bronx, one of New York City’s five boroughs. Nuclear power from Indian Point provides New York City with up to one-quarter of its electricity.

“You’re living living in a dream world if you think we can evacuate after an accident in Indian Point,” said Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper.

“If you live in New York City and there’s an accident like there was in Fukushima,” said Gallay, “you’re not going to be able to escape, and there’s going to be enough radiation to make you sick.”

Indian Point is one of the power plants visited by the GAO investigating team, who also visited St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant in Florida and Limerick Generating Station in Pennsylvania.

The GAO report found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not adequately understand the “shadow evacuation” phenomenon at nuclear reactors, and that its emergency planning regulations do not adequately account for the strong likelihood that far more people would evacuate, from much further distances than NRC plans, in a real nuclear emergency.

“The report did not cover another crucial and little-known flaw in current U.S. nuclear emergency plans,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the nonprofit Nuclear Information and Resource Service, “which is that they are designed to protect only against very high levels of radiation exposure capable of causing immediate health effects, and would not prevent large-scale exposure to radiation levels that would cause chronic illness, including cancer.”

“It’s past time for the NRC to strengthen its emergency rules—that’s a clear lesson from the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, both of which resulted in evacuations far beyond the NRC’s current 10-mile zone,” said Mariotte.

“In a real radiation release, the American people will expect the government to act to protect them against exposures that could cause damaging health effects,” Mariotte said. “This is especially important since the NRC’s current antiquated rules are based on exposure effects to an average adult man—yet women and children are far more susceptible to radiation than men.”

A Petition for Rulemaking submitted by NIRS last February asks the NRC to expand the size of the current 10-mile emergency planning zones around U.S. reactors to 25 miles and to make other planning and training improvements. That Petition, backed by some 6,000 organizations and individuals, is still pending before the Commission.

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