The U.S. should customize emergency plans for each of the nation's 65 nuclear power plants, a change that in some cases could expand the standard 10-mile evacuation zone in place for more than three decades, an expert panel is recommending.
That's one of the lessons to emerge in a 40-page report to be released Thursday on the eve of the Japan nuclear disaster's one-year anniversary from a committee that examined the incident for the American Nuclear Society. The panel includes a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a fellow at an Energy Department laboratory and seven other nuclear scientists.
The report concludes that U.S. nuclear power oversight is adequate to protect public health and safety but that emergency zones "should not be based on arbitrary mileage designations."
Under rules in force since 1978, communities near nuclear plants must prepare federally reviewed evacuation plans only for those living within 10 miles of the facility. That's because in a severe accident most of the early deaths -- those from radiation sickness, not cancer -- are predicted to occur within the first 10 miles. While that zone can be adjusted during an accident, the panel says emergency plans should account for how each nuclear power plant would react in a disaster before it happens.
"It's a matter of planning," said Michael Corradini, director of the University of Wisconsin's Institute of Nuclear Systems and the panel's co-chair. "For certain types of events and certain severities, they may change how they evacuate, or who would evacuate."
An AP investigation in June found that populations around the nation's nuclear power plants have swelled since the facilities were first built but that little has been done to account for the difficulties associated with evacuating so many more people.
The NRC approved a rule in August requiring nuclear plants to update estimates of how long it would take to evacuate nearby communities in an emergency. Plant operators now will have to update evacuation estimates after every 10-year census or when changes in population would increase the estimated time by at least 30 minutes.
The commission has not addressed the evacuation distance issue.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has said that the 10-mile rule is merely a "planning standard" that could be modified in the "unlikely event" of an accident, based on the circumstances.
"So if we needed to take action beyond 10 miles, that's certainly what we would recommend," Jaczko said after touring the Indian Point nuclear complex, about 25 miles from New York City, last year.
The report also found the basis for the NRC's recommendation that Americans living within 50 miles of Japan's Fukushima plant leave the area "puzzling."
The 50-mile zone was greater than Japanese officials recommended for their own citizens after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima facility.