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.
The series further documented how federal regulators have relaxed safety standards inside aging plants to keep them within the rules and avoid the need for shutdowns.
Federal regulators have recommended planning for the unsanctioned evacuation of 20 percent of the population between 10 and 15 miles away. But the GAO report said this recommendation may be faulty, because it's based on a survey of better-informed people within the official evacuation zone.
The GAO said federal officials should study how people outside the 10-mile zone would respond to a nuclear emergency and incorporate this new perspective into standards.
In a letter attached to the report, R.W. Borchardt, executive director of operations for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission that oversees safety, said the GAO misunderstood the "technical basis" of the 20 percent recommendation. He said the agency stands by the 10-mile standard for evacuation planning.