Even though the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) believes the current 10-mile radiological emergency planning zone around nuclear power plants is sufficient, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last Thursday recommends that a larger zone would improve emergency preparedness for possible radiological incidents “and is consistent with NRC guidance.”

The report issued on April 11 that pits the judgment of two government entities against each other was created in response to events following the March 2011 Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant disasters. Japanese authorities evacuated citizens within 19 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The NRC is responsible for overseeing licensees’ emergency preparedness onsite at nuclear plants, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is responsible for overseeing preparedness by local and state authorities around nuclear plants. The NRC and FEMA have established a 10-mile emergency planning zone around nuclear power plants.

In the aftermath of the Japanese disaster, the GAO was asked to examine issues related to emergency preparedness at nuclear power plants. Its report examines:

  • Federal, licensees’, and local and state authorities’ responsibilities in radiological emergency preparedness.
  • Activities the NRC and FEMA take to oversee licensee and local and state radiological emergency preparedness.
  • NRC and FEMA requirements for informing the public on preparedness and NRC’s understanding of public awareness.

The GAO reviewed laws, regulations, and guidance; examined emergency plans from licensees and local and state authorities; visited four nuclear power plants; and interviewed federal, local and state, and industry officials.

Despite NRC opposition, the GAO recommends that the NRC “obtain information on public awareness and likely public response outside the 10-mile zone, and incorporate insights into guidance, as appropriate.”

The GAO says that although those within the 10-mile zone “have been shown to be generally well informed about these emergency preparedness procedures and are likely to follow directions from local and state authorities in the event of a radiological emergency,” the NRC and FEMA “do not require similar information to be provided to the public outside of the 10-mile zone and have not studied public awareness in this area. Therefore, it is unknown to what extent the public in these areas is aware of these emergency preparedness procedures, and how they would respond in the event of a radiological emergency. Without better information on the public’s awareness and potential response in areas outside the 10-mile zone, NRC may not be providing the best planning guidance to licensees and state and local authorities.”

The report from Congress’s independent research office was requested by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), all of whom represent districts with nuclear power plants near large population centers.

Sources: GAO, Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works

Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Managing Editor (@POWERmagazine, @GailReit)

This story was originally published on April 15