Panel says U.S. should rethink nuclear emergency plans

By Associated Press and Herald staff March 9, 2012 

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. should customize emergency plans for each of the nation's 65 nuclear power plant sites, a change that in some cases could expand the standard 10-mile evacuation zone in place for more than three decades, an expert panel is recommending.

That's one of the lessons to emerge in a 40-page report released Thursday -- three days before the anniversary of Japan's nuclear disaster -- from a committee that examined the incident for the American Nuclear Society. The panel includes a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a fellow at an Energy Department laboratory and seven other nuclear scientists.

The report concludes that U.S. nuclear power oversight is adequate to protect public health and safety, but emergency zones "should not be based on arbitrary mileage designations."

Under rules in force since 1978, communities near nuclear plants must prepare federally reviewed evacuation plans only for those living within 10 miles of the facility. That's because in a severe accident, most of the early deaths -- those from radiation sickness, not cancer -- are predicted to occur within the first 10 miles.

About 4,050 people live within 10 miles of the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant north of Richland.

While that zone can be adjusted during an accident, the panel said emergency plans should account for how each nuclear power plant would react in a disaster before it happens. And if evacuation needs to occur, wind patterns and population also should be considered, the panel said.

"It's a matter of planning," said Michael Corradini, director of the University of Wisconsin's Institute of Nuclear Systems and the panel's co-chair. "For certain types of events and certain severities, they may change how they evacuate, or who would evacuate."

An AP investigation in June found that populations around the nation's nuclear power plants have swelled since the facilities were first built but little has been done to account for the risks associated with evacuating so many more people.

The NRC approved a rule in August requiring nuclear plants to update estimates of how long it would take to evacuate nearby communities in an emergency. Plant operators now will have to update evacuation estimates after every 10-year census or when changes in population would increase the estimated time by at least 30 minutes.

The last time Energy Northwest re-evaluated its emergency plan was in 2005, because population within 10 miles had increased by more than 10 percent, but officials determined no changes were needed then.

The commission has not addressed the evacuation distance issue.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has said the 10-mile rule merely is a "planning standard" that could be modified in the "unlikely event" of an accident, based on the circumstances.

"So if we needed to take action beyond 10 miles, that's certainly what we would recommend," Jaczko said last year after touring the Indian Point nuclear complex, about 25 miles from New York City.

The report also found the NRC's recommendation that Americans living within 50 miles of Japan's Fukushima plant leave the area "puzzling."

"I still don't know what the assumptions were that led to that, what kind of calculations were done," said Dale Klein, who headed the NRC from July 2006 to May 2009 and co-chaired the panel. "We just don't understand what the technical basis for that recommendation was."

The 50-mile zone was greater than Japanese officials recommended for their own citizens after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima facility. The expert committee determined the mandatory evacuation ordered by the Japanese government for all citizens to evacuate within 12 miles of the site -- and a voluntary evacuation for those within 18 miles -- was adequate.

-- On the net: American Nuclear Society report:

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