published Monday, June 27th, 2011

More Americans living close to aging nuclear plants

LIVING CLOSE


Calculations of 2010 census data for msnbc.com show how many people live close to TVA nuclear plants. For more information, visit their site.

• Sequoyah

10 miles: 99,664

50 miles: 1,079,868

• Watts Bar

10 miles: 18,452

50 miles: 1,186,648

• Browns Ferry

10 miles: 39,930

50 miles: 977,941

BUCHANAN, N.Y. — As America’s nuclear power plants have aged, the once-rural areas around them have become far more crowded and much more difficult to evacuate. Yet government and industry have paid little heed, even as plants are running at higher power and posing more danger in the event of an accident, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Populations around the facilities have swelled as much as 41⁄2 times since 1980, a computer-assisted population analysis shows.

But some estimates of evacuation times have not been updated in decades, even as the population has increased more than ever imagined. Emergency plans would direct residents to flee on antiquated, two-lane roads that clog hopelessly at rush hour.

And evacuation zones have remained frozen at a 10-mile radius from each plant since they were set in 1978 — despite all that has happened since, including the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan.

Meanwhile, the dangers have increased.

More than 90 of the nation’s 104 operating reactors have been allowed to run at higher power levels for many years, raising the radiation risk in a major accident. In an ongoing investigative series, the AP has reported that aging plants, their lives extended by industry and regulators, are prone to breakdowns that could lead to accidents.

And because the federal government has failed to find a location for permanent storage of spent fuel, thousands of tons of highly radioactive used reactor rods are kept in pools onsite — and more are stored there all the time.

These mounting risks, though, have not resulted in more vigilant preparations for possible accidents.

The AP found serious weaknesses in plans for evacuations around the plants, including emergency drills that do not move people and fail to test different scenarios involving the weather or the time of day.

Some plans are merely on checklists and never have been tested. In drills, responders typically go to command centers and not to their emergency posts. There is no federal requirement for how fast an evacuation must be carried out.

And disaster planners from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have made dubious assumptions about the public response to a major accident.

They insist, for example, that people who are not called upon to evacuate will stay put; they’re now saying that they might under some circumstances tell residents to hunker down at home even in the 10-mile evacuation zone, and they believe people will do it.

That advice flies in the face of decades of science and policy, millions of dollars in planning and preparations — and common sense.

The advice also conflicts with what U.S. officials told Americans in Japan in March, when an earthquake and tsunami knocked out power to Fukushima and melted fuel in three of its six nuclear reactors.

Japanese officials ordered those living within 12 miles of the site to leave. The U.S. government’s advice to its citizens? If you’re within 50 miles, you should evacuate. And NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko insisted that this was nothing more than what would be recommended in a similar situation at home.

In fact, under rules in force for more than 30 years, U.S. communities must by law prepare federally reviewed evacuation plans only for those living within 10 miles of a plant.

Those living within 50 miles are covered only by an “emergency ingestion zone,” where states are required to make plans to ban contaminated food and water — but not evacuate.

After a May 10 tour at the Indian Point nuclear complex, where two reactors operate just 25 miles from New York City’s northern border, Jaczko said the 10-mile rule was merely a “planning standard.”

He said decisions on what to do in the “unlikely event” of an accident would be based on circumstances. “So if we needed to take action beyond 10 miles, that’s certainly what would be recommended.”

If a 50-mile order were ever issued for Indian Point, it would take in about 17.3 million people.

Such a mass exodus would be an “enormous challenge” — and a historic feat, said Kelly McKinney, New York City’s deputy commissioner of preparedness.

“At no time in the history of man,” he said, “has anyone tried to move 17 million people in 48 hours.”

ANALYSIS PINPOINTS GROWTH

When reactors were being built, starting in the 1960s, they were generally kept away from population centers. Their remote locations were viewed as a fundamental safety feature — protection aimed at “reducing potential doses and property damage in the event of a severe accident,” according to federal guidelines.

However, over the decades, millions of newcomers have transformed tranquil woodland or shoreline into buzzing suburbs and bedroom communities.

The AP found in its population analysis that over the decades, plant operators and federal regulators have given surprisingly little thought to nearby population growth.

Officials calculate plant safety margins without considering whether an accident would expose 10,000 or 100,000 people to radiation sickness and cancer. And federal regulators have set no limit for how long evacuations may take for given conditions and locations.

The AP analysis also shows that:

n Four million people now live within 10 miles of the 65 operating sites. (Population in overlapping zones was counted only once for this part of the analysis.) Back in 1980, with 38 nuclear sites, only 1.5 million people lived that close.

n Overall, from 1980 to 2010, the average population in the 10-mile evacuation zones ballooned by 62 percent, from 39,762 to 64,363.

n Populations within the 10-mile radius have more than doubled at 12 of the 65 sites during the same 30-year period.

n About 120 million people, almost 40 percent of all Americans, live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant.

NONSTANDARD STANDARDS

Today, government regulators verify emergency preparedness of communities essentially by checklists, not by standards for what plans must accomplish. They require that communities show the elements of a good plan but not that the plan is effective.

For example, evacuation time estimates are required, but there is no standard for how quickly people must be able to leave. Regulators say the estimates will help planners make decisions in a real accident, even in the absence of a standard.

Jim Kish, a FEMA administrator who focuses on emergency preparedness, said in an interview that a standard would put communities in an undesirable “planning box.”

“They need the flexibility to make decisions on what to evacuate, and when to evacuate, and how to evacuate,” he said.

“I think the NRC wants to make sure that the evacuation side of things doesn’t make plants have to close, even if the population grows quickly,” said Richard Webster, an environmental lawyer who unsuccessfully fought the relicensing petition at the Oyster Creek reactor in Lacey Township, N.J.

Tritium leak prevalence
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