After Fukushima elected officials and experts on both sides of the Pacific join the call for the expansion of nuclear emergency evacuation zones

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In Japan, Shiga Prefecture has extended its preparedness zone around nuclear power plants beyond the 30-kilometer radius set by the central government.  The national laws were never meant to be the final rule, but more of a guideline for regulators, utilities, and local governments to follow.

Governor Yukiko Kada said the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident taught her not to rely on the central government. She said local governments must gather data and create evacuation systems on their own in order to minimize the potential damage.

The move, based on Shiga prefecture’s own simulations of spreading radioactivity in the event of a nuclear accident, expands the accident preparedness zone to a maximum of 43 kilometers from the Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture.

Sadly, Shiga is said to be the first prefecture to take such measures.

In fact, Governor Kada is correct to not trust the central governments safety measures, it has become known that the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) had proposed freezing studies conducted by the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) to expand the range of the priority disaster mitigation zone from the current radius of between 8 and 10 kilometers from a nuclear power plant in the event of a disaster in 2006.

The agency, under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, argued that expansion of the zones ”could cause social unrest and increase popular anxiety,” emails released by the commission showed.  In an email on April 24, for example, the agency asked the commission not to use the expression ”immediate evacuation” for the top priority zone, and two days later asked it to freeze the studies.

The post-Fukushima proverbial ‘sounding of the alarm’ for the expansion of evacuation zones has been received and rebroadcast by elected officials, watchdog organizations, independent experts and the public.

As witnessed from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, by the time a nuclear disaster could be declared, it’s simply too complicated to determine if appropriate to evacuate residents, distribute potassium iodide, or take less alarming precautionary measures if the radiation is already airborne and the public has been exposed prior to acknowledgment by officials.  Radioactivity cannot be seen, smelt, easily detected, or felt so there is no incentive for officials to declare an early emergency, as everything can appear just like normal.

Despite claims by the industry and regulators that emergency plans are adequate, any thorough investigation into a disaster like those mentioned finds many areas with exceedingly limited scope and ample room for improvement. Radiation from Chernobyl had crossed international borders before being discovered and acknowledged by the Soviets.  Fukushima had a nuclear meltdown in 3 of its reactors, which was not declared by the authorities for almost a week after the event.

Last June, after a yearlong investigation, The Associated Press reported that many of the once-rural areas where nuclear reactors were constructed decades ago have become much more heavily populated and thus harder to evacuate. Yet, the AP found that some estimates of evacuation times had not been updated in decades.

In the United States, many watchdog organizations and elected officials are joining the public in an attempt to update the evacuation zones around nuclear power plants.  A report issued by the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, recommended that evacuation zones be re-examined in the wake of the lessons learned from Fukushima.

In beginning of March, the Union of Concerned Scientists exposed the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Agency which oversees the country’s commercial nuclear power plants, for failing to implement key recommendations made by NRC’s own task force last summer that would bolster plant safety. The report, “U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year After Fukushima,” also criticizes the nuclear industry of jumping the gun by investing cheap and generic safety equipment before the NRC has even had time to examine if the equipment would actually help protect the public.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Scranton is on the mark in calling on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to update whether an evacuation zone of 10 miles around nuclear power plants is adequate.  In a letter to the NRC, Mr. Casey said Pennsylvanians should know that “unique characteristics of each plant have been taken into account in the development of evacuation plans.”

Senator Casey called for an “immediate re-examination of whether the standard 10-mile evacuation zone around nuclear power plants is an appropriate distance.”

“My constituents are deeply concerned about the emergency evacuation plans of the five nuclear power plants located in Pennsylvania: Three Mile Island, Susquehanna, Beaver Valley, Peach Bottom and Limerick,” Casey wrote. “My constituents deserve to know that the NRC has reviewed all the standards and regulations in the wake of the disaster in Japan.”

“One year after Japan’s disaster, it is time that millions of Pennsylvanians living in close proximity to nuclear power plants know that the unique characteristics of each plant have been taken into account in the development of evacuation plans,” Casey said in an announcement related the letter.

“Three Mile Island Alert” and 36 other organizations around the nation are petitioning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to increase the evacuation zone around nuclear reactors from 10 miles to 25, and to increase planned evacuation routes from 25 miles to 50 miles.

“We should stop pretending that emergency evacuation zones of 10 miles are adequate,” said Eric Epstein, head of TMI Alert.

Fukushima has proven that a nuclear disaster can easily require a fifty mile evacuation area or larger.   The Indian Point Energy Center is built on two fault lines and is located 25 miles outside of New York City’s northern border.

Congresswoman Nita Lowy submitted a request to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko in March 2012, to expand NRC evacuation plan requirements to include areas within 50 miles of a nuclear facility.

In her letter to the commissioner the Congresswoman added, “I am very disappointed that the NRC’s actions do not address the alarming deficiencies in evacuation plans for surrounding communities.”

Experts who agree with the need for the expansion of evacuation zones point to recent examples like the 2011 hurricane which hit the east coast and affected the Big Apple. Officials did not evacuate the city, instead choosing to relocate those from danger.

When responding to a natural disaster, like a hurricane, an effective evacuation is simply moving people away from the ocean to areas that are elevated high enough to be safe. Now the question is, how does one apply this to nuclear contamination? The answer is much less clear.

A map shows that 50 miles from the Indian Point nuclear power plant lands you somewhere in Manhattan, which could cause problems as many experts admit that it would be extremely difficult if not impossible for New York City to be effectively evacuated.

If activated, a 50-mile evacuation order for Indian Point would include over 17 million people in parts of New Jersey, Connecticut and New York City. Given the geography and transportation infrastructure of the region, a timely evacuation would be nearly impossible and requires further review by the many federal, state, and local entities that would be involved in such a massive undertaking.

Simply stated, ALL Americans assume the cost of Insurance for plant operations, should a disaster occur, ALL Americans will pay the bill to recover.  As pointed out by Arnie Gundersen, the NRC does not even take into account for the long-term or permanent displacement of residents from their homes in their risk analysis models.  The public is becoming aware of the need of a workable plan to address an emergency, more than just hoping nothing will ever happen.

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