By Meg Gilley, DAP Volunteer

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last week warning that in the event of a disaster at one of the 65 U.S. nuclear power plants, frightened residents outside the standard 10-mile evacuation zone may also choose to evacuate, potentially blocking evacuation routes and preventing others from escaping.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires plant operators and local and state governments to plan for evacuation and educate residents within a 10-mile radius of nuclear power plants. However, little planning is required to account for those living between 10 and 50 miles of nuclear plants.

In response to the GAO report, Bill Borchardt, NRC’s Executive Director for Operations maintained that the current 10-mile zone recommendations and shadow evacuation estimates are sufficient. (GAO report, page 32). The NRC defends this approach based on their belief that even in the event of the worst nuclear plant disaster, “immediate life-threatening radiation doses would generally not occur outside the 10-mile zone.” (GAO report, page 23).

This assumption directly contradicts the NRC’s own guidance following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011.  In the NRC’s guidance to the White House and U.S. Embassy in Japan, Borchardt stated, “If this happened in the U.S., we would go out to 50 miles… That would be our evacuation recommendation.”

And it seems the U.S. public may not have full confidence in the NRC’s 10-mile policy. In its report, the GAO found that residents outside the 10-mile zone are likely to evacuate regardless of official orders from government officials and in greater numbers than the NRC anticipates.  These “shadow evacuations” can obstruct official evacuations if they are not properly accounted for.

For example, Los Angeles County officials worry that rumors following an incident at nearby San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station would lead to clogged highways and significant delays on the only two evacuation routes- Interstate 5 and the Pacific Coast Highway. (GAO report, page 23 and San Onofre website)

Many groups also question whether the 10-mile zone is sufficient to protect residents.

Disaster Accountability Project is beginning to ask state and local jurisdictions in areas surrounding plants about their current education and evacuation plans for those living between 10 and 50 miles from nuclear power plants.  Do you live near a plant?  Join our effort!