Concerned by a report from the General Accountability Office, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to study how Pennsylvanians who live between 10 and 50 miles of a nuclear plant would react if there were a radiation release.
The recently released GAO report raised concerns about the emergency planning knowledge of residents outside of emergency preparedness zones, which encompass the area within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear power plant.
The GAO conducted the study after Casey and other senators requested more information to ensure appropriate procedures are in place in the event of a disaster at a U.S. nuclear power plant following the meltdown at the plant in Fukushima, Japan, caused by equipment failure after an earthquake and tsunami hit in March 2011.
The GAO report, titled “Emergency Preparedness: NRC Needs to Better Understand Likely Public Response to Radiological Incidents,” found that people living in the 10-mile zone are generally well informed about emergency preparedness procedures, including evacuation and sheltering in place, and are likely to follow directions from local and state authorities in the event of a radiological emergency.
“In contrast, (the NRC and Federal Emergency Management Agency) 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,” according to the report. “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,” the report states.
Senator wants survey
Casey notes that 10 million people, or 80 percent of Pennsylvanians, live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant. “We need to ensure that appropriate plans are in place and that residents are fully informed about emergency procedures outside of the 10-mile radius,” he said.
He wants the NRC to survey residents within a 50-mile radius of nuclear plants to gauge their knowledge and level of preparedness.
There are five nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania. One of them — the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station — is in Salem Township, near Berwick, about 15 miles as the crow flies from Wilkes-Barre and 12 miles from Hazleton. The next closest to Luzerne County is Three Mile Island near Harrisburg.
Officials at Fukushima had recommended that people within 12 miles of the plant evacuate and within 12 to 18 miles of it shelter in place. The NRC had recommended that Americans within 50 miles of the Fukushima plant evacuate.
NRC will ‘take a look’
The GAO also questioned the accuracy of NRC’s estimate that a 20-percent “shadow evacuation” would occur if an evacuation within a 10-mile radius of a plant was recommended. A shadow evacuation is an evacuation by people who are not instructed to evacuate but take it upon themselves to do so in order to err on the side of caution.
The GAO questioned whether a shadow evacuation greater than 20 percent would slow down the evacuation of people in the 10-mile zone because of clogged roadways.
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the NRC has conducted studies that determine a 20-percent shadow evacuation is a “reasonable estimate.” Even if it were a higher percentage, the NRC does not believe it would impede the evacuation of people within the 10-mile radius and “there would be no significant impact on traffic movement.”
Sheehan said the NRC would “take a look at” whether people in the 10- to 50-mile radius have adequate information available to them about sheltering in place, evacuation routes and emergency shelters. “Phone books have the information and you can find it on many websites,” he said.
Sheehan said NRC studies “have indicated that the public heeds the guidance being provided to state and local authorities to either evacuate or shelter in place.”