Why nuclear emergency planning reform matters

On February 15, 2012, NIRS submitted a formal Petition for Rulemaking to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to change its regulations governing emergency evacuation and emergency planning around nuclear reactors. The heart of the petition calls for expansion of the current 10-mile Emergency Planning Zones around each reactor site, based on the real-world experiences at Fukushima and Chernobyl, and even at 1979’s Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. The petition was initially supported by 37 grassroots organizations, but more than 2700 individuals told the NRC they wanted to become co-petitioners; later, more than 3400 people submitted comments to the NRC endorsing the petition.

Last month, NIRS set up a new action on this issue that allows members of the public to contact their local county and city officials in support of the petition. What we’d like to see is more communities follow the lead of Pittsburgh, PA, South Miami Beach, FL and others where city councils have adopted resolutions supporting the concept of the petition.

Such resolutions can be a very effective education and organizing tactic. Back in the late 1980s, NIRS and other groups began a national campaign to overturn the NRC’s “Below Regulatory Concern” (BRC) policy, which would have allowed about 30% of the nation’s commercial “low-level” radioactive waste stream to be treated as normal garbage, and disposed of in landfills, burned in incinerators, and the like. Over about two years, literally hundreds of local communities–beginning in Massachusetts, spreading quickly throughout New England and then across the country–adopted resolutions against the BRC policy. Those resolutions directed the jurisdictions to send their adopted resolutions not only to the NRC, but also to their statewide and federal elected officials, urging them to take similar action. And then the states began picking up the issue; within a year or so, 15 states had passed laws saying BRC would not be legal in their states. And Congressmembers heard the call too: Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) convened hearings on the concept and brought in the NRC Commissioners to explain. It didn’t go well for the NRC. Then-chair of the NRC, Kenneth Carr, told Miller the idea was that this radioactive waste was so benign that you could put it in a landfill and then build a Little League baseball field over it. To which Miller replied, “Yeah, I want to see the Governor cut the ribbon on that one….” In fact, the level of radiation exposure that would have been allowed under the NRC’s BRC’s policy would have, according to the NRC’s own data, caused a 1 in 286 chance of fatal cancer for an average male over a 70-year lifetime. By the end of the year, 1992, Congress had formally repealed the policy.

Later in that decade, dozens of cities ranging in size from Los Angeles to Mt. Rainier, Maryland, passed resolutions opposing transportation of high-level radioactive waste across the country (and often through or near their city borders) to a temporary storage site–a campaign known as Mobile Chernobyl. Those resolutions, and the accompanying publicity about them, played a key role in building the opposition to the unnecessary and dangerous transport of high-level waste, opposition that ultimately led to a veto by President Clinton of legislation passed by Congress to begin such transport. The veto was sustained by the Senate.

So you can see why NIRS likes the resolution campaign approach, especially for issues–like emergency planning–that directly affect cities and counties across the country. Such campaigns educate policymakers, starting at the most basic town, city and county levels–where local officials are most likely to engage in dialogue with their constituents. These campaigns also mobilize activists, and if carried through can lead to startling change and victories at the national level.

We can win on this issue too: we can change the emergency planning regulations and provide a better level of safety for our fellow citizens. Not to mention providing activists with substantially increased leverage to force some reactors to close because they are sited in locations where they could not possibly meet the improved emergency evacuation rules our petition would implement.

The NIRS petition for rulemaking would make four explicit changes to current emergency planning regulations. These are changes that would save lives in the event of a severe nuclear accident in the U.S. The four explicit changes NIRS’ petition would make are straightforward: the current 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone would be expanded, based on the experience at Fukushima and Chernobyl, to 25 miles. A new zone, which would go from 25 to 50 miles, would be created. Under the petition, this zone would not be subject to emergency exercises, but enough pre-planning would be done–including pre-publication of transit routes to be taken in the event of an accident–so that an evacuation order could quickly be expanded to encompass this zone. Again, this is based on real-world experience. As NRC Commission Chair, Greg Jaczko advised Americans within 50 miles of Fukushima to evacuate at the height of the accident. Towns and villages far outside Chernobyl’s initial 18 mile Dead Zone were evacuated, permanently, as hot spots were identified.

The current 50-mile Ingestion Pathway Zone, within which the NRC and state and local officials would monitor radiation in food, milk, and water, would be expanded to 100 miles. Contaminated food and liquids were found even beyond 100 miles of both Fukushima and Chernobyl; 50 miles is clearly too little. Establishing a more realistic zone would enable expansion of that area in a real emergency if necessary.

Finally, the petition would require every other emergency exercise done by the utilities (once every two years, along with NRC, FEMA, and state and local officials) to include a regionally-appropriate initiating or concurrent natural disaster. It is simply astonishing that the utilities and government officials have never had to train to cope with such an event, even though it has long been known–and unfortunately graphically demonstrated at Fukushima–that earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters would not only vastly complicate an evacuation, but can also cause a nuclear catastrophe.

Somewhat less obviously but perhaps even more importantly, the petition also challenges the entire concept that underlies the NRC’s current emergency rules, which, in real life, are far less protective than is generally understood, even by local officials who would have to implement them. The petition would change the NRC’s approach of basing its emergency approaches from reliance on computer models to one that takes real-world experience into account.

Few people–including local officials and even many anti-nuclear activists–don’t realize that the NRC doesn’t intend to evacuate anyone if projected radiation exposure levels would be lower than levels that might cause acute illness. In other words, think you and your children are going to be evacuated if radiation levels might be high enough to cause cancer later on? Nope, under the NRC’s current approach, they’d expect you to stay put and suck it up (as one EPA official actually said referring to the extremely high radiation levels found in the EPA’s Protective Action Guidelines, which form part of the basis for the NRC’s approach).

Our petition, and our entire Nuclear 911 campaign, challenges this fundamental point. In a real nuclear accident, public officials are going to advise evacuation when radiation levels are projected to be sufficient to cause exposures, period. Parents are not going to allow their children to remain in areas where they may be exposed to radiation levels that may cause cancer or other diseases later, even if those levels are not high enough to cause immediate harm. And remember, children are much more susceptible to radiation than adults, so parents will be taking the right step in evacuating whether the NRC or FEMA or EPA says to or not. The NRC’s regulations should account for this reality. Federal, state and local governments must be prepared to conduct effective evacuations recognizing that this is the reality.

As I told the NRC in a public meeting in September 2012, “The American people simply will not accept being left—being abandoned essentially—in areas where they could receive radiation exposures after a nuclear accident that could cause thyroid cancer and other cancers and diseases. Especially since, with adequate evacuation, those diseases could be prevented. And I certainly would not want to be the government official who tried to tell them that it just isn’t that important to evacuate because, after all, the government has determined the radiation levels they’re being exposed to won’t kill them immediately—it’ll take some time. That would be doing a heckuva job, Brownie….”

The NRC’s rules envision a nuclear accident that produces “a puff” of fast-moving radiation–not an extended release as we saw at both Fukushima and Chernobyl. Rather than incorporate the lessons of these accidents (as well as Three Mile Island, which gave rise to the concept of “shadow evacuation,” where many more people actually evacuated than were told to), the NRC relies on computer models to determine the likelihood and nature of a radioactive release. Remarkably, the NRC’s SOARCA computer model, its latest and greatest, determined–after Fukushima–that an accident at one of Peach Bottom reactors could not possibly result in an off-site release large enough to merit emergency measures. Peach Bottom is, of course, a GE Mark I reactor design–a clone of Fukushima.

Again, real life trumps the computer models, and if the NRC fails to recognize the lessons that reality has provided, it is laying a foundation for greater disaster rather than providing a basis for emergency planning that can save peoples’ lives.

Forcing the NRC to recognize that emergency planning must reflect real-world experience if this planning and training is to be effective when needed is the underpinning of our petition and campaign, and why emergency planning reform not only matters, it is absolutely necessary.

We hope that people who have not yet contacted their local officials to support these necessary reforms will do so now. You can do so from our action page here. But don’t stop there. Please let NIRS know of the replies you receive from local officials. If you haven’t received a reply, use our action page and contact them again! Yesterday in GreenWorld, we admired retiring Rep. Henry Waxman’s “relentless persistence” in support of his goals; this is exactly the kind of campaign that requires that kind of effort.

Please follow-up with your local officials. It’s not enough to simply send them one e-mail and it’s not enough for them to send you back a stock e-mail reply. Call them and ask for a commitment to introduce and vote for a resolution. If they want more information, give it to them, or ask NIRS to provide it. Take a sample resolution to a city council meeting and ask that they vote for it–if not at that meeting then at the next.

Be polite, but be persistent. Don’t be intimidated by elected officials; they are there to represent you. Towns, cities and counties outside the current 10-mile Emergency Planning Zones but within the 50 miles our petition would encompass stand to receive substantial benefits if our petition is enacted: training for its first responders and in some cases financial resources and infrastructure improvements (emergency communications equipment, etc.). Point out those benefits.

And, of course, when your jurisdiction does pass a resolution, make sure that 1) you let NIRS know and 2) that the jurisdiction passes the resolution on to state-level officials (state house and senate members, governors, etc.) and the jurisdiction’s federal Representative and Senators.

A dozen new resolutions will force new movement of the petition at the NRC. 100 new resolutions–still far fewer than we obtained in the BRC campaign–will ensure public consideration of the petition and Congressional interest; perhaps public hearings, perhaps new and improved laws. We would not only win on the emergency planning issue, we’d be well on our way to closing more reactors that can’t meet the new requirements.

Don’t forget about that last point. No one seriously believes the area around Indian Point, for example, can be evacuated in the event of a real nuclear accident. That would involve the nightmare scenario of millions of people attempting to flee from the New York metropolitan area. But the reactors there are allowed to operate because of the fiction that the 10 mile zone is adequate and that no one ever would have to evacuate beyond 10 miles. Our petition would end that fiction. Indian Point couldn’t meet the regulations our petition would implement. It would have to close.

There are other reactors in similar situations. They were either poorly sited in the era before emergency planning regulations existed, or they are in areas that have experienced rapid growth and now have much larger populations that are put in potential peril.

As long as nuclear reactors operate, they pose a threat to the public. That is, of course, why we oppose nuclear power in the first place. The ultimate answer is to close all reactors permanently. But there is no magic bullet, no clever campaign that can achieve that goal at once.

So, as long as nuclear reactors operate, the American people deserve the best possible protection from nuclear accidents. We know that nuclear accidents happen. We know nuclear accidents can be caused by natural events. We know that nuclear accidents require evacuations of people and we know those evacuations can be required well beyond 10 miles. Those are all real-world lessons based on real-world experiences.

The NRC, with its usual posture of putting the interests of the nuclear industry above the interests of the American people, clearly is not going to implement those real-world lessons on its own. It is up to us–to you–to force them to do so. NIRS does not have the ability to reach thousands of local elected officials on our own. But collectively, you do have that ability.

NIRS is trying to give you the tools, the resources, the expertise, and the incentive to do so. We hope you’ll take advantage of all of these. We’ll help your efforts in any and every way we can. Just ask.

Michael Mariotte

Permalink: https://safeenergy.org/2014/02/04/why-nuclear-emergency-planning-reform-matters/

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One thought on “Why nuclear emergency planning reform matters

  1. Pingback: Why nuclear emergency planning reform matters | GreenWorld | Resilient Management Solutions

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