GAO recommends expanding warning zone around nuclear power plants

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) needs to make changes in how it educates citizens outside a 10-mile zone around nuclear power plants so that they can be more prepared for any nuclear disaster, said a new Government Accountability Office report released April 10.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a frequent NRC critic who was one of the senators asking GAO for this report, said April 10 that the report shows that the NRC must re-think its 10-mile-zone policy.

The NRC and 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. The NRC is responsible for overseeing licensees’ emergency preparedness at the plant (on-site), and FEMA is responsible for overseeing preparedness by local and state authorities around the plant (off-site). NRC and FEMA have established a 10-mile emergency planning zone around nuclear power plants.

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 will be re-evaluated as part of its lessons learned efforts for the Fukushima incident,” said the GAO report about a 2011 nuclear accident in Japan that triggered a sweeping review of U.S. nuclear safety policy.

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

“NRC and FEMA require licensees and local and state authorities, respectively, to provide information annually on radiation and protective actions for the public only inside the 10-mile zone,” GAO wrote. “Those in the 10-mile zone have been shown to be generally well informed about these emergency preparedness procedures and are likely to follow directions from local and state authorities in the event of a radiological emergency. In contrast, the agencies do not require similar information to be provided to the public outside of the 10-mile zone and have not studied public awareness in this area. Therefore, it is unknown to what extent the public in these areas is aware of these emergency preparedness procedures, and how they would respond in the event of a radiological emergency. Without better information on the public’s awareness and potential response in areas outside the 10-mile zone, NRC may not be providing the best planning guidance to licensees and state and local authorities.”

In March 2011, a tsunami inundated parts of and severely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan and led to the largest release of radiation since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the old Soviet Union. Japanese authorities evacuated citizens within 19 miles of the plant, GAO noted.

“To better inform radiological emergency preparedness efforts, GAO recommends that NRC obtain information on public awareness and likely public response outside the 10-mile zone, and incorporate insights into guidance, as appropriate,” said the report. “NRC generally disagreed with GAO’s finding, stating that its research shows public response outside the zone would generally have no significant impact on evacuations. GAO continues to believe that its recommendation could improve radiological emergency preparedness efforts and is consistent with NRC guidance.”

Democratic senators line up to back the GAO’s findings

This report, officially dated March 11 but released by GAO on April 10, was sent to several senators, including Boxer, D-Calif., Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Boxer said in an April 10 statement about the report: “Clearly, this is a common sense recommendation after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. 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. I urge them to follow the reasonable recommendations made in this report.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said: “Today’s GAO report shows that 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. 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.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, 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.”

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said: “It is clear from this report that more needs to be done to know what residents who live outside of a ten 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% of the population of the State, live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. 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.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.