Groups call for look at current 10-mile evacuation radius
When an earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown and radiation release at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, authorities evacuated everyone within a 12-mile radius, and U.S. officials told Americans within 50 miles to get out.
Last year's devastation in Japan has some people wondering whether the 10-mile evacuation zone that the U.S. government has mandated since 1978 -- before Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima -- should be expanded.
"We're right on the lip here," said Terri Hardisky, 50, of Findlay, who lives about 11 miles from FirstEnergy Corp.'s Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport. "If something happened, it could go further than 10 miles. You just never know."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, state officials and FirstEnergy say 10 miles is enough. Extending it to the 50-mile radius that was suggested in Japan would increase the affected population from 113,500 to 3.2 million people in three states and could overwhelm emergency responders.
"Even if you created a huge event where you had a worst-case scenario, radiation levels outside the 10-mile radius wouldn't be expected to exceed EPA guidelines," said FirstEnergy's Jennifer Young, spokeswoman for the Akron, Ohio-based power company.
But scientific groups, elected officials and environmental advocates say the NRC should review the mandate. The American Nuclear Society, a professional group of engineers and academics, told the NRC last month that it should customize evacuation zones, allowing for larger zones around some of the country's 65 plants based on geography, population and wind patterns.
"If 10 miles is good enough, they need to say why," said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, who told the NRC in letters that he's concerned evacuation plans might be outdated. "They have to have enough expert opinions that underscore that opinion, so that the American people can evaluate it and others can evaluate it, and decide whether it's enough."
'A major undertaking'
The NRC continues to evaluate the Fukushima disaster to see whether lessons learned there might apply in the United States, spokesman Neil Sheehan said. In August, the commission ordered nuclear plants to update estimates of how long it would take to evacuate nearby communities.
Plant operators have to update evacuation estimates after every 10-year census or when changes in population would increase the estimated evacuation time by at least 30 minutes. The population around Shippingport has been dropping since the 1980s.
"In Beaver County, we're well-aware of the possible risks," said Elaine Neill, executive director of Prima Learning Center, a child care center in Midland, less than two miles from Shippingport. "We'll just do whatever we're told to do, and our top priority is to keep the children safe."
Squirrel-Hill based Citizen Power, an environmental group, wants the evacuation zone increased to 50 miles. Official now consider that an "emergency ingestion zone" where residents are not evacuated, but officials monitor potential food or water contamination.
Pittsburgh's western neighborhoods begin just beyond the 20-mile radius from the plant.
"I don't know if we'd have enough public safety employees in the area to make sure evacuation routes would be open," said Ray DeMichiei, the city's deputy director of emergency management. "Nothing's impossible, but that's a lot of people."
Expanding the evacuation zone would make obsolete many sites set up in surrounding counties to receive 10-mile evacuees, said Wes Hill, director of Beaver County emergency services. He also heads Region 13, a group of Western Pennsylvania counties that train together and aid one another during disasters. He said paying for training and planning for an expanded evacuation zone would be costly.
"Does cost outweigh safety• By no means, but it's still something we have to consider," Hill said. "It's already a major undertaking coordinating evacuation efforts."
Sheehan said an expansion would mean installing more warning sirens, holding more emergency drills and expanding the distribution of iodide pills, which people are urged to take during a radiation release.
"Before we'd embark on those kind of changes, we need to understand whether that's warranted," Sheehan said.
'Plan for the worst'
UPMC's Center for Biosecurity in February called for a review of evacuation zones.
"It would be worthwhile for the U.S. to re-evaluate its own evacuation protocols to include mandatory evacuation zones, which could prevent delays in evacuation and radiological exposure, given the Japanese experience," the center wrote in a study.
Some groups outside the 10-mile radius have planned for the worst.
Sewickley fire Chief Jeff Neff said the borough has evacuation plans developed in case of a disaster, especially because Heritage Valley Sewickley houses hundreds of patients.
"It would be a huge undertaking," Neff said of expanding the evacuation zone. "It would involve a lot of different organizations to make that happen."
Titus North, executive director of Citizen Power, said people outside the 10-mile zone likely would evacuate anyway. With a 50-mile zone, he said, authorities could train and be prepared.
"Our country's fleet of nuclear reactors is aging each day, and radioactive waste is increasing," North said. "We've got to hope for the best but plan for the worst."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency ensures that states are prepared to evacuate people, said Kevin Sunday, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"Evaluations have shown that the Pennsylvania agencies responsible for responding to such an emergency, including DEP, the Department of Health and PEMA, are indeed well-prepared," Sunday said.
Ohio officials have discussed evacuation zones but have not made any decisions, emergency management spokeswoman Tamara McBride said.
"We're awaiting guidance from federal and regulatory agencies before making any changes or recommendations," she said.