(Last updated 8/8/11)
Nuclear plant operators and federal regulators know that assuring public safety requires going beyond action to prevent problems; it also requires careful planning to manage unexpected events. Federal law requires that nuclear energy operators develop and exercise sophisticated emergency response plans to protect the public in any extreme scenario.
The industry’s emergency response plans and preparations have been proven so effective that, in many instances, state and local governments use them to protect citizens during natural disasters and emergencies in other industries. A federally approved emergency plan is required for the plant to maintain its Nuclear Regulatory Commission operating license.
- America’s nuclear plants exceed federal standards and have enhanced capacity for fighting large fires, alternatives for supplying cooling water to reactors and used fuel storage pools, and several sources of backup power to enable safety systems.
- A nuclear plant’s emergency response plan must provide protective measures, such as sheltering and/or evacuation of communities within a 10-mile radius of the facility, and a 50-mile monitoring zone for food, livestock and water to prevent radiation exposure from contaminated foodstuff.
- Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, new NRC requirements have been incorporated into emergency response plans that address such issues as on-site sheltering and evacuation, public communications and emergency staffing in the specific context of a security breach.
- Emergency exercises are conducted every two years, in coordination with state, local and federal officials, local law enforcement and other first responders.
- Strategies are in place to recover the plant before radiation is released into the environment, even if large areas of the plant are inaccessible or destroyed.
- All plants have the ability – using diesel-driven portable water pumps, for example – to bring cooling water to the reactor and fuel storage pool without offsite or onsite electric power.
America’s nuclear energy facilities are designed and built to safely withstand a wide variety of natural and other severe events and staffed by highly trained, federally licensed operators with a five-decade history of safe operations in the United States. The operators who staff these facilities are capable of taking the actions necessary to mitigate and control adverse events. An emergency plan provides multiple layers of protection by specifying additional measures that may be taken in the event of a severe accident.
An effective emergency response is the product of mutually supportive planning and preparedness among several parties: companies that operate the plants; local, state and federal agencies; and private and non-profit groups that provide emergency services.
There was some public confusion over the use of emergency planning zones when President Obama recommended the evacuation of Americans within 50 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the March accident. The advisory to evacuate to 50 miles was based on calculations by NRC experts indicating that radiation releases from four reactors and two fuel pools at the plant could possibly exceed safe radiation exposure limits for the public. Importantly, this was an extremely conservative recommendation based on limited data and conservative assumptions.
This recommendation may seem to be inconsistent with the size of emergency planning zones used for American nuclear energy facilities. In fact, the NRC said its decision “was consistent with the same kind of approach that would be used in the United States should a comparable, although extremely unlikely, event take place here.”
Focusing public action within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear energy facility would assure that prompt and effective actions can be taken to protect the public in the event of an accident. This was based on research showing the most significant impacts of an accident would be expected in the immediate vicinity of a plant and therefore any initial protective actions, such as evacuations or sheltering in place, should be focused there. The projected radiation levels would not be expected to exceed EPA protective action dose guidelines (1 to 5 rems) beyond 10 miles under most accident scenarios.