Whether by virtue of regular testing of sirens, mailings about emergency plans or possibly the receipt of potassium iodide (KI) pills, there are frequent reminders for those who live within a 10-mile radius of a U.S. nuclear power plant of the need to be ready should a significant event occur at the facility.
This area is known as the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ), and it is well established in federal regulations as the focal point of preparing for a severe accident at a reactor.
Some confusion has cropped up in the media and elsewhere recently regarding the size of EPZs in the wake of developments involving the Fukushima Daiichi reactors and spent fuel pools in Japan. The source of this confusion appears to stem from the NRC advisory on March 16th for American citizens who were within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate: http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML1108/ML110800133.pdf.
The advisory to evacuate to 50 miles was based on calculations done by NRC experts indicating releases from the three hobbled Japanese reactors and two fuel pools could – and a key word here is could – possibly exceed conservatively set safe radiation-exposure limits for the public. This advisory was made using limited data and conservative assumptions.
On its face, this recommendation seems to be at odds with the size used for American EPZs. In fact, it 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.
In November 1976, a federal task force was formed to look at salient emergency planning issues for U.S. nuclear power plants. Out of that comprehensive evaluation came a recommendation that a 10-mile-radius EPZ would assure that “prompt and effective actions can be taken to protect the public in the event of an accident” at a plant. 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.
Put another way, the projected radiation levels would not be expected to exceed EPA protective action dose guidelines (1 rem to the body or 5 rem to the thyroid) beyond 10 miles under most accident scenarios.
That does not mean the protective actions could not expand beyond the 10-mile radius. Rather, emergency planners have always known such actions could be necessary if the situation warranted it. Indeed, U.S. nuclear power plants are required to consider and drill for the possibility of radiation releases that could have impacts up to 50 miles away, in addition to the required biennial exercises conducted in the vicinity of each nuclear power plant to assess implementation of the emergency plan within the 10-mile EPZ. Once every six years, each plant takes part in an exercise graded by the NRC and FEMA to demonstrate how it would handle such an event.
As the document NUREG 0654/FEMA-REP-1 on emergency planning states “In a particular emergency, protective actions might well be restricted to a small part of the planning zone. On the other hand, for the worst possible accidents, protective actions would need to be taken outside the planning zones.” (This joint document is the basis for emergency planning around nuclear power plants and adds background to our regulations found in 10CFR 50.47.)
The Japanese have been confronted with extremely challenging circumstances wrought by a record earthquake followed by a massive tsunami. As the NRC carefully monitored developments there, the agency used the best information available to it to make a protective action recommendation to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo for Americans within 50 miles of the six-reactor Japanese site, which was experiencing problems in four reactors and two spent fuel pools.
Were a similar accident to occur in the U.S., the response would be guided by the same considerations. But it is worth noting the United States has no nuclear complexes of this size.
Once the salient facts regarding the events at Fukushima Daiichi are made clear to the NRC, it intends to assess its own regulations and practices for any pertinent lessons learned that can be applied here. This will include an assessment of current emergency planning guidance and policy.
As the NRC carefully monitored developments there, the agency used the best information available to it to make a protective action recommendation.
More information on emergency planning for U.S. nuclear power plants is available on the NRC website at: http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/emerg-preparedness.html .
Eliot BrennerPublic Affairs Director