Nuclear Power and Emergency Preparedness

, former director, Nuclear Safety Project | June 17, 2014, 6:00 am EST
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Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit  #32

As the accident at Fukushima Daiichi demonstrated for those who missed or forgot the prior demonstrations at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, a bad day at a nuclear power plants can have serious implications beyond the fences. Nuclear power plants normally send vast amounts of electricity out far and wide. Because they can also send out vast amounts of radioactive materials far and wide, emergency preparedness is not only a good idea—it’s the law.

Section 50.47, Emergency plans, of Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations  (10 CFR) establishes the following 16 measures for protecting members of the public and workers in event of nuclear power plant accidents:

(1) Primary responsibilities for 10-mile emergency response by the plant owner and by state and local organizations within the emergency planning zones have been assigned and the emergency responsibilities of the various supporting organizations have been specifically established.

(2) Responsibilities of plant workers responding to nuclear plant emergencies are unambiguously defined, adequate staffing is available for the initial response, and initial response capabilities can be augmented in a timely manner.

(3) Arrangements for requesting and effectively using assistance from state and local organizations have been made.

(4) A standard emergency classification and action level scheme, the bases of which include facility system and effluent parameters, is in use by the plant owner and state and local organizations and response plans call for reliance on information provided by the plant owner for determinations of minimum initial offsite response measures.

(5) Procedures have been established for timely notification by the plant owner of state and local organizations and for notification of emergency personnel by all organizations; the content of initial and follow-up messages to response organizations and the public has been established; and means to provide early notification and clear instruction to the populace within the emergency planning zone have been established.

(6) Provisions exist for prompt communications among principal response organizations to emergency personnel and to the public.

(7) Information is made available to the public on a periodic basis on how they will be notified and what their initial actions should be in an emergency (e.g., listening to a local broadcast station and remaining indoors).

(8) Adequate emergency facilities and equipment to support the emergency response are provided and maintained.

(9) Adequate methods, systems, and equipment for assessing and monitoring actual or potential offsite consequences of a radiological emergency condition are in use.

(10) A range of protective actions has been developed for the emergency planning zone for emergency workers and the public. In developing this range of actions, consideration has been given to evacuation, sheltering, and, as a supplement to these, the use of potassium iodide (KI). Guidelines for the choice of protective actions during an emergency, consistent with federal guidance, are developed and in place.

(11) Means for controlling radiological exposures, in an emergency, are established for emergency workers. The means for controlling radiological exposures shall include exposure guidelines consistent with EPA Emergency Worker and Lifesaving Activity Protective Action Guides.

(12) Arrangements are made for medical services for contaminated injured individuals.

(13) General plans for recovery and reentry are developed.

(14) Periodic exercises will be conducted to evaluate major portions of emergency response capabilities and to develop and maintain key skills.

(15) Radiological emergency response training is provided to those who may be called on to assist in an emergency.

(16) Responsibilities for emergency plan development and review and for distribution of emergency plans are established, and planners are properly trained.

Appendix E to 10 CFR Part 50 provides additional detail on these emergency planning regulatory requirements.

Planning Zones and Emergency Exercises

N32 Figure 1 epi-publichealth-nc-gov

Click to enlarge. (Source: State of North Carolina Public Health Dept)

This map illustrates the two emergency planning zones established for every nuclear power plant operating in the United States. A plume-exposure-pathway emergency planning zone of approximately 10 miles in radius is intended to protect people from harm caused by exposure to radiation released during an accident. These protective measures include evacuating, sheltering, or issuing potassium iodide for individuals to take. An ingestion-exposure-pathway emergency planning zone of approximately 50 miles in radius is also intended to protect people from harm caused by radiation released during an accident. These protective measures entail actions to control drinking of radioactively contaminated water and milk and consuming radioactively contaminated foodstuffs.

Hannibal Smith’s catch-phrase on the 1980s TV series A-Team was “I love it when a plan comes together.” Federal regulations require that the emergency plan for each operating nuclear power plant be exercised every two years. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grades the performance of state and local response organizations during the exercises while the NRC grades the plant owner’s performance. Because an exercise involves many representatives from state and local organizations, the NRC schedules them more than a year in advance. For example, the next biennial exercise for the Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut will be conducted on September 9, 2014, the next exercise for Indian Point (NY) will be conducted October 6, 2014, the next exercises for Sequoyah (TN) and Braidwood (IL) will be conducted November 19, 2014, and the next exercise for Calvert Cliffs (MD) will be September 15, 2015.

The NRC and FEMA issue public reports on their assessments of the biennial emergency exercises. The NRC’s reports lack meaningful information, but the FEMA reports are quite informative (and not just by comparison to the NRC’s unintentionally blank pages). For example, FEMA issued reports on the biennial exercises conducted in recent years for Three Mile Island (PA), San Onofre (CA), and South Texas Project (TX).

Bottom Line

The emergency plan requirements have good intentions—protecting the public and workers from harm caused by exposure to radiation during nuclear plant accidents. The biennial emergency plant exercises are good road tests for these good intentions. But the exercises are biased towards false hopes and overly rosy assurances and away from reality.

The exercises are scheduled many months in advance so all the primary players can mark it on their calendars and participate in the exercises. The exercises are scheduled during normal business hours during work days. The simulated nuclear plant accident begins around 9am and gets resolved in plenty of time for the post-event critiques to be completed before normal quitting time.

The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear plant accidents happened in the middle of the night.

The Fukushima nuclear plant accidents happened in the middle of a broader natural disaster.

Because nuclear plant accidents thus far have not been scheduled many months in advance, the responders have been those on duty by fate instead of by pre-arrangement.

Because nuclear plant accidents have occurred in conjunction with other disasters, the responders have been unable to focus undivided and unfettered attention to them.

Because nuclear plants are not like TV dramas that end before the hour (after the last commercial airs), they require more than a single roster of primary players.

The biennial exercises would be more realistic—and thus become better indicators of whether people could be adequately protected—if they periodically involved: (a) putting primary players on the bench to see if the understudies could be found and could step in to perform the necessary tasks, (b) simulated accidents on midnight or weekend shifts to judge how well response happens outside normal business hours, and (c) responders having to cope with more than a nuclear plant accident to see if prioritization decisions are made properly.

Right now, the biennial exercises assure people they could be protected against a nuclear plant accident scheduled many months in advance to occur on a normal workday morning and conclude before the afternoon rush hour traffic. That assurance is better than nothing, but we can and should aim higher.

The NRC, on its webpage titled “What Do I Do in a Nuclear Emergency”, offers this guidance:

If an accident occurs at a nuclear power plant near you, stay calm and listen to your local television or radio stations for updates and instructions from your state and local officials.

Similar guidance is provided by the Department of Homeland Security.

Even though the “stay calm” response would be easier if “What Do I Do in a Power Plant Emergency” or similar phrasing didn’t conjure up imagery of mushroom clouds and Godzilla, tuning into a local TV or radio station for instructions from state and local officials is extremely important. Failure to obtain and heed those instructions could result in you and your family moving into an area where you are exposed to higher levels of radioactivity. “Staying calm” is good. “Staying away from unnecessary radiation exposure” is way better.


The UCS Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) is a series of post intended to help citizens understand nuclear technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s processes for overseeing nuclear plant safety.

Posted in: Activist Toolkit, Nuclear Power Safety Tags: , ,

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  • Richard Solomon

    As you probably know, some people living near Fukushima were evacuated to an area thought to be safe. It was subsequently discovered that they were actually moved to an area with HIGHER radiation exposure. So much for following the advice of ‘the experts’ to stay away from unnecessary exposure sometimes!

    • Mike Carey

      Most people don’t know that the Onagawa nuclear plant near Fukushima, but actually closer to the epicenter of the quake and tsunami, not only survived undamaged, but served as a REFUGE for the nearby victims of the devastating flooding that destroyed so many structures and killed so many Japanese residents.

      The Onagawa plant was built and operated by a competing electric utility, NOT Tepco, who grossly endangered the Fukushima area by actually LOWERING the tsunami barrier to make it easier to make deliveries from the ocean. None of this was covered in Mr. Lochbaum and Mr. Lyman’s recent book on the Fukushima accident, “because of space limitations.”

      The UCS will not be a credible source on nuclear safety while it chooses to pursue its anti-nuclear agenda with incomplete and inaccurate reporting.

      • dinkydave

        Congrats to Onagawa and all other nukes that never release more than “normal” amounts of radioactivity, and have only “normal” increases in childhood leukemia in children living nearby. Still, it is the dramatic failures–TMI, Cherrnobyl, Fuku–and continuing lack of permanent storage for dangerous wastes that is the news. I will stick with UCS and others and press for a safe, clean future.

        • Mike Carey

          And congratulations to all the nuclear plants world wide that have prevented the premature death of 1.8 MILLION people by avoiding the release of toxic fossil fuel pollutants.

          See James Hansen’s peer reviewed paper. From the abstract:
          “Using historical production data, we calculate that
          global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
          that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning.”

          BTW – the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), in New Mexico, has been receiving DoD nuclear waste for several years and has recently demonstrated its ability to respond effectively to underground incidents by carefully safeguarding the employees and surrounding area. Yucca Mountain could make everyone feel safer when the political opposition finally gets out of the way.

        • …there are no increases in childhood leukemia associated with nuclear power plants. TMI hurt nobody and didn’t even cause a loss of land for industry or agriculture. Fukushima also didn’t hurt anybody, and wasn’t a failure. It was smashed by an act of God–mag 9 quake induced 30 meter tsunami. Chernobyl was a primitive Soviet design that didn’t even have a containment dome. Yet the powerplant continued to operate for 14 years after the accident, and although it caused a permanent loss of land that can no longer be used by humans for industry or agriculture, it also created Europe’s largest wildlife preserve.

          Three nuclear incidents of note in half a century.

  • mt1000

    NOTE: During 9-11 events on the east coast the Emergency Broadcasting System was NEVER utilized.
    East coast residents were in the dark all day as to what was going on. Rumors or more attacks, missiles fired from the Woolworth’s Building as well as fear the Amex Building would collapse went on all day in the New York City area.
    When Congressman Rangel asked derelict head of the FCC, Powell, who was in charge of the useless EBS why they didn’t communicate emergency news to the public that day he had no reply.

    Expect total FAIL on these weak plans should a nuclear emergency arise in the US.
    After all there is no consequence to ineptitude by any of the parties involved.

  • Phil Carlson

    A radiation physicist recently informed me that the number of terrabequerels of radiation released to the environment by coal combustion in one year is a thousand times greater than the number released by the Fukushima accident and are longer lived radionuclides (like uranium and thorium) with radioactive daughters.

    Also, the most recent UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) report A/68/46 from 2013 about the health effects of Fukushima stated that there are no immediate or long term health effects from the radiation release. Here is a portion of the report available on the web. The detailed scientific data is also available.

    Health implications

    38. No radiation-related deaths or acute diseases have been observed among the
    workers and general public exposed to radiation from the accident.

    39. The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and
    estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased
    incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants. The most important health effect is on mental and
    social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and
    nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing radiation. Effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms have already been reported. Estimation of the occurrence and severity of such health effects are outside the Committee’s remit.

  • Dr. A. Cannara

    It’s fine to engage in safety measures, with continual improvement.

    So why did Lochbaum co-author a book on Fuklushima that didn’t bother to identify the root cause of the tragedy? Why, in the SF Commonwealth Club’s hall, did I have to hand him the 2-page BAS explanation of Fukushima’s designed-to-fail analysis? Why did he and his co-authors not explain to readers the root cause, but instead mislead readers into thinking Fukushima Dai-Ichi is ruined because of “nuclear power”?

    Why did Lochbaum et al write without honestly exposing the facts that both fukushima Dia-Ini and Onagawa experienced worse or equal quake/tsunami threats but survived because their designs didn’t share Dai-Ichi’s root cause weaknesses?

    Why should we continue to support UCS when it clearly hasn’t the scruples to enforce factual authorship?

    after 3-Mile Island, WANO was formed and all the receptiveness for suggestions made in this piece expanded across the nuclear industry. That’s why nuclear power has always been the safest form of generation ever deployed by mankind. (1998) (2nd video graphic)

    Yet, despite the facts of nuclear safety superiority, despite the decades of French success in eliminating most emissions from their power sources, we have UCS staff writing as if nuclear power isn’t safe, while ignoring how many of us die each year from gas explosions, coal accidents and emissions, oil explosions and pollution, and so on — even windmills kill regularly…

    Why does UCS still show windmills on its propaganda, when we as scientists/engineers know that win power is the weakest, least environmental energy source?… Guess UCS is smarter than Harvard folks? (video, note graph axes)

    Lochbaum & Lyman owe all an apology for their myopia, apparently induced by personal issues with narrow sectors of nuclear organizations they haven’t risen above.

    I’ll no longer be contributing $ to UCS, after many years of support.

    Dr. A. Cannara
    650 400 3071

  • Joyce Agresta

    Nuclear reactor accidents are now expected as demonstrated by the accidents at Fukushima Daiichi ,Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. It’s very likely that on any given day or night a nuclear reactor accident causing greater damage than the above mention can happen.

    Emergency preparedness as it is today serves more as a psychological kindness a false since of security to those in the zones rather than providing any physical safety net. From the inception of Nuclear Reactor power plants in America these inhabitants where considered expendable and have also served as human medical experiment test subjects. Although there is much controversy over the health effects on peoples surviving the Three Mile Island accident NRC offers them up as a number or statistic. One might even think more good than bad came from the Three Mile Island accident if information was gathered from only the NRC.”LESSONS LEARNED” We may never know the true damage caused by TMI but we will always know the fall out resulted in direct human medical experimentation.

    The horrific haunting screams of one suffering acute radiation poisoning very soon fade to a comforting whimper for those suffering a crueler fate the torture can last months or even years.

    Good intentions ? Maybe Josef Mengele had good intentions too.

    K1 REALLY ??? Not the best known remedy but certainly the cheapest who’s coveting the magic potions that come in pink in blue?