A new government report challenges a pillar of planning for disasters at American nuclear power plants, finding 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.
For more than 30 years, community readiness has been based on the belief that evacuation planning isn't needed beyond 10 miles from nuclear sites. But the Government Accountability Office report — to be released later Wednesday but obtained in advance by The Associated Press — found that 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." The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of nuclear safety, disputed the findings.
The investigation was requested by four U.S. senators: Democrats Barbara Boxer of California, Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont. They asked for the report in 2011 in response to an AP investigative series reporting weaknesses in community planning for nuclear accidents, including the likelihood of surprisingly large shadow evacuations. The GAO acts as an investigative arm of Congress.
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.