Alert to Congress: Nuclear evacuation may bog down
Regulators and congressional investigators clashed Wednesday over a new report warning that in the event of an accident at a nuclear plant, panicking residents from outside the official evacuation zone might jam the roads and prevent others from escaping.
The report by the Government Accountability Office, which acts as the investigative arm of Congress, challenges a three-decade-old fundamental of emergency planning around American nuclear power plants: that preparations for evacuation should focus on people who live within 10 miles of the site.
The GAO found that people living beyond the official 10-mile evacuation zone might be so frightened by the prospect of spreading radiation that they would flee of their own accord, clog roads, and delay the escape of others. The investigators said regulators have never properly studied how many people beyond 10 miles would make their own decisions to take flight, prompting what is called a "shadow evacuation."
As a result, the GAO report says, "evacuation time estimates may not accurately consider the impact of shadow evacuations."
However, Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, shot back in an email statement: "We disagree with the view that evacuations cannot be safely carried out."
The investigation was requested by four U.S. senators: Democrats Barbara Boxer of California, Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont. They asked for the report in 2011 in response to an Associated Press investigative series reporting weaknesses in community planning for nuclear accidents, including the likelihood of surprisingly large shadow evacuations.
In an interview Wednesday, Casey said the report suggests that "we need to do more to ensure that these residents who live outside of the 10-mile radius have access to and understand evacuation procedures." He said legislation may be needed but gave no details.
The disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Japan two years ago has heightened worry about how well U.S. communities can protect themselves from a major release of radiation. When a tsunami cut off power and nuclear fuel melted, more than 150,000 people fled the Fukushima area, many from well beyond 12 miles, according to Japan’s Education Ministry. U.S. officials recommended that Americans in Japan stay 50 miles back.
Under federal rules, however, U.S. communities practice for evacuation or other protective action by residents only within 10 miles of nuclear power plants. States also lay plans to limit consumption of contaminated crops, milk and water within 50 miles.
Environmental and anti-nuclear groups have pressed federal regulators to expand planning to 25 miles for evacuation and 100 miles for contaminated food. They also want community exercises that postulate a simultaneous nuclear accident and natural disaster.
Nuclear sites were originally picked mainly in rural areas to lessen the impact of accidents. However, in its 2011 series, the AP reported population growth of up to 350 percent within 10 miles of nuclear sites between 1980 and 2010. About 120 million Americans — almost 40 percent — live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, according to the AP’s analysis of Census data. The series also reported shortcomings in readiness exercises for simulated accidents, including the failure to deploy emergency personnel around the community, reroute traffic, or practice any real evacuations.
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