The latest story in the fab AP series on the state of nuclear reactors in the US introduces the hot topic of evacuation zones in the event of a nuclear accident in the United States. NRC regulations specify that there must be a plan in place to evacuate 10 miles around US reactors. These plans mandated in the US are insufficient. AP’s report shows that evacuating has become more complicated in the past 30 years, a factor of increasing populations around reactors (by as much as 400%!), limited evacuation routes (two lane highways that will easily get mired in traffic), and the assumption that a 10-mile radius will be adequate (despite evidence from Fukushima and Chernobyl that show otherwise).
PSR published an online mapping tool in April 2010 that shows evacuation zones around reactors for both the mandatory 10-mile evacuation zone, as well as a 50-mile radius (which the US government recommended for US citizens and personnel in Japan) and provides the number of people that would be affected. An analysis by PSR’s President-elect Dr. Andy Kanter of the effects of a nuclear accident or attack at Braidwood nuclear station in Illinois shows the impacts of an accident on public health, as well as what it would mean for hospitals, medical professionals and first responders. In the event of a catastrophic coolant failure at Braidwood, first responders would receive huge doses of radiation, some 32,000 hospital beds would fall into the occupational hazard zone, and nearly 20,000 physicians would receive greater than occupational maximums for radiation exposure from the plume.
AP’s report finds that the threat to the public from an accident may have increased because, most reactors have been allowed to operate at higher power levels, and these “uprates” mean higher thermal output and more radiation risks. Spent fuel in over 75% of the reactors in the United States is jam-packed in spent fuel pools, another serious public health risk as shown by the spent fuel pool fire in the Fukushima accident. Dr. Robert Alvarez at the Institute for Policy Studies recently released a report detailing the radiation present in the spent fuel pools in the fleet of US reactors. According to the report:
There are more than 30 million such rods [spent fuel] in U.S. spent fuel pools. No other nation has generated this much radioactivity from either nuclear power or nuclear weapons production…Even though they contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, U.S. spent nuclear fuel pools are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to merely protect them against the elements.
Buildings that are constructed only to withstand the weather under normal conditions and are not well-equipped in the event of a disaster, make it more likely that radioactive materials will enter the environment and necessitate the need for evacuation.
The existing situation at reactors is clearly an example of multiplying risks and foolishly optimistic expectation of both the conduct of an evacuation and the scale of hazardous effects. AP highlights how truly unprepared we are for nuclear accidents.