If you're one of the 120 million Americans living within a 50 mile radius of a nuclear power plant, you'd better have your "Go-Bag" handy. But then again, if an evacuation is triggered, you may not be able to carry it very far.
Today, an investigative report by the Associated Press, part of their four-part headliner series on nuclear power, slammed the evacuation plans in place around the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States for neglecting to consider growing populations and aging infrastructure, and for relying on counterfactual assumptions.
The AP report cites the example of the densely populated area around the Indian Point nuclear plant in Westchester County, now a thriving New York City suburb. When the first of its three reactors was built in 1964, Northern Westchester was semi-rural and much more thinly populated. Today, it's a populous commuter zone of winding roads and bottlenecked bridge crossings that jam up at rush hour. About 270,000 residents live in a ten-mile radius around the plant the report found -- more than around other nuclear plant in the US, and many times the number that lived near Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
The meltdown there in March 2011 forced some 70,000-80,000 people living within 12 miles to evacuate. They got out successfully, but that's no indication evacuation would succeed here. Surrounding populations in the US are often denser: Fukushima evacuated only about one quarter of the people that would have to be evacuated in a comparable emergency around Indian Point.
And the US falls far, far short of Japan's high standard of emergency preparedness. Because of its harrowing history of destructive earthquakes and tsunamis, Japan is considered one of the world's best prepared countries, mandating yearly evacuation drills for schoolchildren and more frequent drills throughout the country for the last 50 years. Not so here. We don't bother with actual evacuation drills, just theoretical, table-top ones, possibly because we don't want to prove how impractical our evacuation plans are.
For years, officials of counties surrounding the plant warned about the lack of realism of the Indian Point evacuation plan. There was some outcry about its vulnerability after the 9-11 attacks, but even that did little to change our culture of lax nuclear oversight and lack of emergency preparedness. Even as the 911 commission revealed that Al Qaeda had actively reconnoitered and considered attacking Indian Point, then Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge famously said plant security was the "prerogative" of the private plant owner.
The State Emergency Management Office (SEMO) requires all the Executives of all counties in the emergency zone around Indian Point to sign off on its evacuation plan, then it rubber-stamps the plan and sends it to FEMA. But in 2003 and 2004, under pressure from constituents after 9-11, county officials and SEMO refused to sign. That prompted New York Governor Pataki to commission a $1 million evaluation of the plan from the consulting firm of former FEMA director James Lee Witt. The Witt report said what every resident already knew: evacuating people ten miles around Indian Point in a nuclear emergency was impossible. Pataki subsequently buried the report and ignored recommendations for catastrophic preparation.
After that, the Indian Point evacuation zone was quietly reduced from ten miles to TWO miles, plus an eight-mile wedge shape in the direction of the wind blowing the radioactive plume around (never mind what happens to the wedge if the wind shifts), on the self-serving theory that any radioactivity released in an American reactor accident would be small.