US meltdown evacuation standards different than recommendation for Japan

U.S. companies are only required to develop emergency evacuation plans for people living within 10 miles of a reactor, even though the U.S. is recommending that Americans within 50 miles of the overheating power plant in Japan evacuate. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group, said Thursday the NRC should require companies to develop evacuation plans for residents living within 50 miles of a plant.

“We’ve been advocating for quite some time that they need to look at expanding emergency evacuation zones,” Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at UCS, told reporters Thursday. “It’s astounding and shocking.”

“There would be no plans in place for evacuating beyond a 10-mile zone,” Lyman said.

For example, if a similar nuclear disaster to the one currently occurring in Japan happened at the Indian Point nuclear plant in Buchanan, N.Y., there is no current plan in place to evacuate New York City, which is located less then 50 miles away, Lyman said.

Japanese nuclear plant evacuations -- Getty Images“The NRC should not be utilizing different standards for Americans abroad and Americans at home,” Lyman said.

The NRC requires licensees to work with the commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop emergency preparedness plans based on a 10-mile evacuation radius, NRC spokesman David McIntyre said.

The NRC requires that licensees look at the safety of food supplies within a 50-mile radius.

“The zones were always considered a base that could be expanded if circumstances warrant,” McIntyre said.

The NRC stood by its 10-mile evacuation requirement Thursday.

“We believe it is still sufficient — as I noted, it’s considered a basis that can be expanded if circumstances warrant,” McIntyre said. “However, I would be mighty surprised if that question doesn’t come up when we review this incident for lessons learned.”

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko met with President Obama Wednesday and recommended that Americans within 50 miles of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant evacuate. The evacuation radius is greater than the one recommended by the Japanese government.

Jaczko, in back-to-back Congressional hearings Wednesday, insisted U.S. reactors are safe and can withstand major natural disasters. While the Obama administration has stood by its support for nuclear power, some Democrats have called for a broad safety review of the nation's reactors.

Meanwhile, Lyman offered a sober assessment of the fate of the Japanese nuclear plant that faces continued crisis.

“I don’t think there’s any indication that the situation has improved,” Lyman said. “We may be faced with potential continued loss of coolant in those pools through evaporation.”

UCS is an independent group of scientists. The group takes no official policy position on nuclear power.