GAO Find NRC Is Ignoring Nuclear Evacuation Impact

Residents of Futaba Fukushima stuck in traffic as Unit 1 exploded.
Residents of Futaba Fukushima stuck in traffic as Unit 1 exploded.

The GAO has released a report showing the NRC has downplayed and ignored significant risks in the event of a nuclear evacuation. The NRC’s new standard that was quietly ushered in over the winter holidays in 2011 scaled back the evacuation zone scope to 10 miles around a nuclear plant. In a separate action the EPA and DHS are in the process of confirming a change to how their agencies handle a nuclear power disaster that would declare many areas “safe” and deny people an official evacuation, denying them assistance and potentially forcing them to continue to reside in unsafe areas. The inclusion of nuclear disasters in the DHS report that was initially only to look at a terrorist “dirty bomb” incident was added late in the process and within the last year.

The main point of contention with the GAO is that the NRC calculated for the 10 mile zone a 20% “shadow evacuation” meaning that 20% of the nearby population would evacuate even though they were not told to evacuate. The NRC has described in the past a desire to “keyhole evacuate” people within a 10 mile zone. This would be where those subject to the wind direction at the time would be asked to evacuate but other parts of the 10 mile zone would not. The new NRC plan ignores any potential impact of people fleeing or “shadow evacuating” from outside the 10 mile zone.

NRC and FEMA require licensees and local and state authorities to provide emergency preparedness information annually to the public within the 10-mile emergency planning zone, and NRC has studied public awareness within the zone. A 2008 NRC study found that the public within the 10-mile zone is generally aware of emergency preparedness and likely to follow instructions, but NRC has not studied likely responses to an incident outside this zone. Without knowing reactions outside the 10-mile zone, NRC cannot be confident that its estimates of shadow evacuations outside the 10-mile zone provide a reasonable basis for planning off-site protective action strategies.”

The GAO points out that by completely ignoring the impact outside the 10 mile zone it could have a considerable effect on the ability to evacuate from inside the 10 mile zone. At this point the NRC doesn’t know what would happen due to actions by the public outside the official evacuation zone. As has been proven by previous nuclear disasters the disaster does not stay withing 10 miles of the accident. Likely plume paths will extend far past the 10 mile zone. Limited roads could be gridlocked preventing evacuation as more than expected numbers try to flee the plume. Hospitals and nursing homes outside the 10 mile zone would have no nuclear evacuation plan. We saw even hospitals in such an evacuation zone in Japan were unable to effectively evacuate the patients and staff for days.

Futaba Hospital people waiting for days to be evacuated.

The GAO instructed the NRC to go back and re-analyze these evacuation plans to include the unofficial evacuation of people in the 50 mile zone around a nuclear plant. The NRC has flatly refused.

Specifically, NRC did not believe that the report accurately captured the technical basis for the NRC’s use of 20 percent as a reasonable estimate of shadow evacuations beyond 10 miles. NRC explained that it has conducted considerable research on evacuations and has confidence that shadow evacuations generally have no significant impact on traffic movement”

The GAO is standing their ground against the NRC. GAO can go to Congress with their findings and ask Congress to intervene. The lax NRC directives end up being a favor to nuclear plant operators as this directive makes them have to do less planning work for an evacuation. It also lowers the scope of the problem of old nuclear power plants located in what are now huge metro areas. When analysis is done beyond 10 miles the potential scope of an evacuation balloons. San Onofre, Indian Point and North Anna are prime examples of this. San Onofre’s 50 mile zone includes over 8 million people, the port of Los Angeles and 29 Palms Marine base. Indian Point impacts New York City and North Anna’s plume and 50 mile zone has the ability to reach Washington DC. SimplyInfo member Peter Melzer took a hard look at how North Anna would impact the nearby region and Washington DC in this paper. This isn’t the first time the NRC has been found wanting by the GAO, they were also found to be insufficiently estimating decommissioning funds for nuclear plants meaning that the money needed to hopefully take them down when they end operations may not be there.

Nursing home residents located about 3 miles from the plant, evacuated 3 days after the start of the Fukushima disaster by SDF soldiers

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