Friday April 12, 2013

File this in the folder labeled "Tell us something we don’t know already."

On Wednesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report critical of emergency response plans related to the nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants.

The GAO concluded that those of us who live and work within the 10-mile emergency preparedness zone around plants such as Vermont Yankee in Vernon are well informed about the nature of nuclear emergencies, have a general idea of what to do if one happened and generally trust emergency response officials to give us the appropriate instructions.

But, the report notes, people even just a few miles outside of the 10-mile radius around a power plant are not so well-informed and "may not respond in a similar manner to a radiological incident as those inside the zone."

And even worse, noted the GAO, neither the Nuclear Regulatory Commission nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency have analyzed public awareness outside of the 10-mile emergency preparedness zone. Because of that, states the report, "Licensees and NRC and FEMA cannot be confident about the reliability of their estimates."

The GAO is referring to "shadow evacuations," what Ed Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, characterizes as a spontaneous evacuation by people outside of the EPZ.

"That could interfere with the ability of people closer to the plant to evacuate," Lyman told the Reformer in October 2012 as part of the Reformer’s nine-part series on radiological emergency response planning.

In its report, the GAO agreed with Lyman: "If shadow evacuations are not correctly estimated, planning for a radiological emergency may not sufficiently consider the impact of the public outside of the (EPZ)."

When asked to address this concern, the NRC responded it has conducted considerable research on evacuations "and has confidence that shadow evacuations generally have no significant impact on traffic movement."

However, noted the GAO, the NRC’s studies actually had nothing to do with nuclear accidents, and were based on evacuations that resulted from hurricanes, wildfires and chemical spills.

"It is unclear whether the public would behave the same for a nuclear evacuation as it would for the incidents that NRC has studied," stated the report.

The GAO recommended that the NRC and FEMA collect more relevant data from outside the 10-mile EPZ, otherwise its recommendations, standards and requirements are not entirely adequate.

"The Fukushima accident has shown that evacuation might be needed well beyond 10 miles in the event of a nuclear plant radiological release (in order to meet current Environmental Protection Agency criteria)," wrote Lyman in a recent e-mail to the Reformer. "Without any requirements for evacuation planning or potassium iodide distribution for areas beyond the 10-mile EPZs, large segments of the population would be left on their own to figure out how to protect themselves if an event like Fukushima were to happen here."

To most of us who live and work within the EPZ around Vermont Yankee, this is a no-brainer. Just ask anyone at one of the strip malls in nearby Keene, N.H., about emergency preparedness and chances are they don’t even know there’s a nuclear power plant less than 20 miles away. Anybody who’s driven there during the end-of-the-day commute can envision what a mess it would be there if something awful happened at Yankee.

Now just imagine that same scenario at Indian Point in the Hudson Valley, which has more than 50 million people living within 50 miles of the plant.

"If you look at a real-world perspective and the lessons we learned from Fukushima and (Tropical Storm) Irene, there is no such thing as an orderly evacuation," Larry Crist, the regional executive of the Vermont and New Hampshire Valley Red Cross told the Reformer last year.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, responding on behalf of the industry, was quick to point out "our facilities are operating safely -- as verified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a multitude of safety and performance indicators that are monitored and reported regularly ..."

NEI noted that the NRC’s State of the Art Reactor Consequences analysis, released in January 2012, showed that earlier NRC studies that projected off-site radiological health consequences for potential severe reactor accidents were extremely conservative.

"The analyses showed that there are significantly more fission products retained within the reactor coolant system and containment than previously believed, and that there is more time for mitigation of a severe accident than previously believed, because accidents generally progress significantly more slowly than previously believed -- that is, many hours to tens of hours vs. about one hour in a related study from 1982."

The GAO was asked to conduct its study by four U.S. senators, including Vermont’s very own Bernie Sanders, who were concerned that the nuclear disaster at Fukushima had exposed weaknesses in nuclear emergency response plans.

They were especially interested in learning why the U.S.government recommended its citizens within 50-miles of the crippled reactor complex evacuate and why the U.S. only requires a 10-mile EPZ around its own nuclear power plants.

"There are 23 reactors in the United States, including Vermont Yankee, with designs similar to the Fukushima reactor in Japan," stated Sanders following the release of the report. "Many of them are close to populated areas. The NRC needs to expand its emergency planning procedures to better protect all of the people living near nuclear reactors, not just those in the 10-mile zone."

We would urge the industry, FEMA and the NRC to follow up on the study’s recommendations and expand its zone of analysis, but there’s a very good reason why they won’t -- because it might lead to an expanded EPZ, which would mean only one thing, as Ira Helfand, a doctor and anti-nuclear activist from Springfield, Mass., told the Reformer last year.

"If you had to create a 50-mile evacuation zone, the only answer would be to shut down the power plants."