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Taking a Long Look at Nuclear Safety Taking a Long Look at Nuclear Safety

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Taking a Long Look at Nuclear Safety

Is the U.S. prepared for mass evacuations within 50 miles of nuclear plants? Is it even ready for the 10-mile radius currently on the books? A small sample of the questions the NRC is addressing after Japan's crisis.

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At 24 miles from New York City, Indian Point Energy Center is the closest commercial nuclear power plant to a major U.S. city.(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Among the most dramatic discrepancies between the U.S. and Japanese responses to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster were the evacuation zones.

As radiation leaked from the crippled reactors in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, Japanese officials told residents to evacuate if they were within 20 kilometers, roughly 13 miles. The U.S. Embassy, meanwhile, recommended evacuations within a radius of 80 km, or 50 miles.

 

“We have our own set of standards and safety, and we thought we'd err on the side of caution," U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.

In fact, U.S. safety standards only require evacuation within a 10-mile radius in the case of nuclear disaster. That has prompted a full-throated call from experts, officials, and nuclear-safety watchdogs for an expansion of nuclear evacuation zones to 50 miles.

“We need to have better evacuation plans. I don’t think we have adequate ones,” said former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, speaking Sunday on ABC’s This Week.

 

Expanding U.S. nuclear evacuation areas to 50 miles could have profound consequences—for one, several major metropolitan areas would find themselves within that range, including New York City and greater Washington and Los Angeles.

Evacuation ranges will be among hundreds of rules that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government agency that oversees the nuclear industry’s safety, will consider in the coming weeks and months as it begins to review its existing standards in response to an order by President Obama. Nuclear-safety watchdog groups, led by the Boston-based Union of Concerned Scientists, which does not advocate for or against nuclear power, say they believe the review should turn up dozens of loopholes and lax regulations that could lead to accidents at one of the nation’s 64 nuclear power plants.

The commission held its first public hearing on the events in Japan on Monday morning. It met over the weekend to begin sketching out a “plan of a plan for how to go forward” on reviewing the existing safety standards for U.S. nuclear reactors, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said Sunday in an interview on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers.

Jaczko has been circumspect about what the review might turn up, insisting that he wants to proceed methodically through a review of the regulations before making recommendations. But the Fukushima disaster has already thrown a spotlight on nuclear-safety issues that have already been under scrutiny in the U.S. Here are some of the questions that regulators—and the public—will grapple with in the debate about nuclear safety.

 

Evacuation plans

Some nuclear-safety experts aren’t convinced even the current 10-mile evacuation zones around U.S. nuclear plants can be effectively evacuated. Meanwhile, the practical implications for expanding those zones to up to 50 miles could be expensive and complicated. Populations living in the zones may have to become familiar with evacuation drills. “Schools in New York City might suddenly have to stockpile potassium iodide,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“It would be an enormous challenge—which is why I expect the NRC to push back on that.”

Spent-fuel storage pools

The disaster in Japan put the spotlight on how nuclear power plants store waste on site. Depleted—but still lethally radioactive—spent uranium fuel rods are stacked in giant pools of water. Emptying the spent-fuel pools exposes the rods and causes them to heat up and ignite into a radioactive inferno. That’s been the greatest fear as water has emptied from the Fukushima spent-fuel pools. And it’s highlighted a grave concern for U.S. plants, which pack spent fuel rods into pools at much higher densities than those in Japan. Nuclear-safety advocates have been raising red flags for years about packed U.S. spent-fuel pools, and they are sure to come under greater scrutiny as the NRC reexamines its spent-fuel pool standards.

Relicensing old plants

While there have been many advancements in nuclear-safety technology, the nation’s stock of 104 commercial reactors is getting old. Most of the U.S. nuclear fleet was built between 1969 and 1984, including 23 reactors that are the same model as the Fukushima Daiichi. As existing plants approach the end of their license periods—generally granted for 40 years—there will be increasing debate about the safety criteria for extending those licenses. 

What about Indian Point?

Indian Point Energy Center, licensed in 1973 and located less than 24 miles from New York City, has drawn fire for years from nuclear watchdogs.  It is the only major nuclear plant located in such close proximity to a major metropolitan area, and NRC inspectors have determined that it has a slow water leak in one of its reactors. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has called for it to be shut down, and officials from Cuomo’s office are set to meet with the NRC on Tuesday.

“That is an issue,” Chu said on Fox News Sunday. “We will have to look at whether this reactor should remain.”

Siting new plants

The renewed public uncertainty over nuclear power, and the likelihood that new nuclear power could soon become economically untenable due to increased regulation and liability costs, is likely to put a de facto freeze on new U.S. plants for years. But even if new plants do come on line, there will be a hot new debate on where they can be sited, particularly with relation to coasts or earthquake fault lines. "Certainly, where you site reactors... going forward will be different," Chu said on Fox News Sunday.

How much will it cost?

Conducting the safety reviews could well cost the federal government more money. Jaczko said on C-SPAN on Sunday, “This is going to be a very significant workload for the agency. If we need additional resources to deal with it, then we’re going to have to ask Congress for support. But our No. 1 priority will be security and safety for the existing fleet, and we won’t take away resources from that.”

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