BRATTLEBORO -- Nearly 40 organizations identifying themselves as clean energy groups submitted a formal petition Wednesday to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission seeking the adoption of new regulations that would expand emergency evacuation zones and improve crisis response planning at reactors nationwide.
The announcement, led in Montpelier by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), calls on the NRC to incorporate "real-world" lessons following the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan last March. The federal nuclear agency reported last summer, in response to the Japanese disaster, the realities at Fukushima may further enhance preparedness for such an event at the more than 100 reactors currently operational in the United States.
Organizations like VPIRG, along with dozens of others from Georgia to California, propose expanding the existing emergency evacuation zones from 10 miles up to 25 around nuclear reactors and establish a new sphere up to 50 miles around the properties to identify and publicize potential evacuation routes.
The groups also are pushing for requiring the utilities, as well as state and local governments, to practice emergency drills that include a natural disaster that either initiates or occurs concurrently to a nuclear meltdown.
VPIRG Executive Director Paul Burns said residents across three states are living in the shadow of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station
"This reactor has been riddled with problems in recent years, from a collapsed cooling tower to underground pipes leaking radioactive material into Vermont's waters. People living nearby are concerned, and they have every right to be," Burns said.
Attempts by the Reformer to receive a comment from Rob Williams, spokesman for Entergy Vermont Yankee, before presstime were unsuccessful.
According to the NRC, there is a formal process for petitions that calls for the agency to develop new regulations in emergency planning. Once a petition is received, the commission reviews it against existing standards and if the proposed changes are deemed acceptable, they create a proposed rule for public consideration.
Overall, the rule-making process can take several years, which may be too long for groups looking at the emergency zones near major metropolitan areas.
Indian Point Energy Center, also an Entergy-owned facility, is 24 miles north of New York City and is considered one of the most demographically dense areas of any reactor in the nation.
"Even under normal conditions, traffic is congested and regional infrastructure is highly stressed. During the severe snow, rain and wind storms of the past few years, large swaths of the region have been brought to a near standstill," said Michel Lee, Steering Committee, Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition. "And yet the NRC ignores all these realities, preferring to play with its computer models. This is a dangerous game."
NRC Public Affairs Officer Neil Sheehan said the commission's Japan Task Force determined last year the U.S. nuclear power plant Emergency Planning Zones (EPZs) should fall into the category of Tier 3, meaning the issues under consideration fall into its long-term review of lessons learned from Fukushima.
In its July 2011 report, the task force stated the "population closest to the nuclear power plant that is within the 10-mile EPZ is at greatest risk of exposure to radiation and radioactive materials."
When the population is evacuated from the area and potentially contaminated foodstuffs are removed from the market, the risk from further radioactive iodine exposure to the thyroid gland is essentially eliminated. Beyond the 10-mile EPZ, the major risk of radioiodine exposure is from the ingestion of contaminated foodstuffs, particularly milk products. Both EPA and the Food and Drug Administration have published guidance to protect consumers from contaminated foods. These protective actions are preplanned in the 50-mile ingestion pathway EPZ."
The report goes on to say "insights from real-world implementation at Fukushima, including the realities of multi-unit events, might further enhance U.S. preparedness for such an event. ... As information and insights emerge about the challenges faced by Japanese officials while implementing protective actions around Fukushima, the NRC and its partners should evaluate those insights to identify enhancements to the decision-making framework in the United States."
Sheehan said the task force found the NRC and other agencies involved with nuclear plant emergency planning should continue to evaluate lessons learned from Fukushima and how they might apply in this country.
"No recommendations have been made by the NRC to date in terms of changes to the current EPZ approach," he said. "I would add that while the 10-mile-radius EPZ is the focus of emergency planning for nuclear power plants, protective actions can be extended to members of the public beyond that area if emergency response decision-makers deem that to be appropriate."
Since its natural disaster, Japan has improved its emergency response capability in the event nuclear reactors are allowed to operate in the country again. Prior to Fukushima, the EPZs for nuclear emergencies in Japan was between 5-6 miles and is now expanded to 18.
Michael Mariotte, executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said 80 percent of the airborne radiation released from Fukushima went directly over the Pacific Ocean.
"Even so, the Fukushima evacuation zone extended more than 25 miles to the northwest of the site, and the NRC and U.S. State Department both recommended that U.S. citizens within 50 miles of Fukushima evacuate," Mariotte said. "Such evacuations could not be effectively conducted in the U.S. under current emergency planning regulations. We need to be better prepared and we can't rely on favorable wind patterns to protect the American people."
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service initiated the petition to NRC officials.
An estimated 120 million Americans, about a third of the population, live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor. Emergency planning presently in place requires utilities to develop and exercise emergency evacuation plans within a 10-mile radius.
Chris Garofolo can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.