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US Nuclear Emergency Planning Needs an Overhaul
Last Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he wants to see the Indian Point nuclear power plant, located 38 miles from New York City, shut down. "This plant in this proximity to the city was never a good risk," he explained. Cuomo was hardly the first person to express concerns about the plant, which supplies power to New York City and its suburbs. A day before the governor's statement, the nearly four-decade-old site was one of 14 US nuclear plants cited for safety "near-misses" in a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Which raises the question: What should New Yorkers do if a Japan-like emergency were to hit Indian Point?
Recently that question got a lot more complicated. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) currently sets the evacuation zone around American nuclear power plants, also known as the "Plume Exposure Pathway Emergency Planning Zone," at 10 miles. Japanese authorities have evacuated residents living within about 19 miles of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. But US officials have urged all Americans within 50 miles of the troubled Japanese reactors to get out of the way. Does this contradictory advice mean that our 10-mile emergency plans need to be revisited?
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, in an appearance on CSPAN on Sunday, defended the 10-mile zones, noting that sites in the US don't have as many reactors as the Japanese plant and that the plans are meant only for the immediate response. "What we want to do is build a system that we know at 10 miles we can activate that system quickly and we can mobilize it quickly," said Jaczko. "We always appreciate that there may be circumstances where we have to expand that if necessary."
But the US government's advice to keep 50 miles away from Fukushima has "opened up a Pandora's box," says Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who focuses on nuclear power and security. The group has previously argued that the zones need to be reevaluated. "This is certainly going to raise questions about the safety of those who live more than 10 miles from the plants in the US."
Widening the evacuation zones to 50 miles around the United States' 104 plants would affect a number of densely populated areas. The Indian Point zone would, of course, then include all of New York City—meaning that the 21 million people in the 50-mile radius might need to relocate in case of a serious emergency. Maryland's Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant is nearly 50 miles from Washington, DC, home to 500,000. The McGuire Nuclear Station is just 17 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina, which has 730,000 residents. (See our chart below to see how many cities and towns are located within the 50-mile zone, or check out CNN's map that lets you see how close you live to a nuclear power plant.)
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