Lately, there has been some media interest in our updated emergency preparedness regulation, finalized last year. We welcome this interest and the opportunity to explain our most recent changes.
The NRC, working closely with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), started the process to revise the EP rule after a top-to-bottom review in 2005 noted areas for improvement. The rulemaking also formalized security orders U.S. plants put in place after the events of 9/11.
The NRC discussed the proposed changes at public conferences in 2007 and 2008, and the agency issued draft rule language in early 2008. Additional public meetings on the draft language in 2008 were followed by a proposed rule published in the Federal Register for public comment in May 2009. The NRC took public input on the proposed rule for five months, holding a dozen public meetings and gathering several hundred comments. The NRC greatly appreciated and benefited from the feedback we received. Staff from the NRC and FEMA briefed the Commission on Dec. 8, 2009, and May 3, 2011, both of which involved a panel of external stakeholders, regarding the proposed rule.
The Commission approved the final rule on Aug. 30, 2011, and we issued a press release at that time. The release noted aspects of the rule, including new requirements for back-up means of alerting the public and for updating evacuation time estimates when population changes warrant. The NRC held additional public meetings around the country after the rule was published; more than 550 people participated.
Under the new rule, plants are still required to hold an NRC-graded exercise every two years, but the new rule requires the plants to have an eight-year planning cycle during which they had to insert new scenarios that, among other things, adds a level of uncertainty to the exercises.
The NRC learned an important lesson in its EP review – plant personnel and state and local officials had become so used to scenarios requiring evacuation they made decisions about evacuations long before available information would support their actions. The new EP rule addresses that by requiring some exercise scenarios to damage a plant without releasing radioactive material – this will force exercise participants to more carefully consider their decisions instead of assuming evacuations were the best option.
The new rule also requires that an exercise scenario must include one that has a security component in addition to a safety issue. (These EP exercises based on a security scenario are not to be confused with the ongoing security-based force-on-force drills the NRC also requires at every plant.)
Another change in the rule involves a revision to evacuation procedures. Extensive research shows health risks from an accident would be greatest within two miles of a plant, so guidance for the new rule focuses on that close-in population. Getting the “two-mile” people relocated first keeps evacuation routes potentially less clogged. Other research, announced earlier this year, provides additional insight into how successful EP procedures, combined with the expected timing of a reactor accident, can keep the public safe.
The NRC continues to examine EP issues in light of last year’s accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi. The agency has asked U.S. nuclear power plants to analyze their staffing needs for events involving multiple reactors at a given site. The NRC is also in the early stages of rulemaking to integrate and strengthen several categories of nuclear plant emergency procedures. The agency also continues to examine information from Fukushima to see what else can be learned regarding the size of evacuation planning zones and the use of potassium iodide.Scott Burnell Public Affairs Officer