08/29/2013 - 06:32

Duck and cover

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...

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My hometown of Omaha is only 19 miles downriver from the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station. The Minnesota town where I attended college is less than 30 miles from the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant. And for almost a decade I lived in or near New York City, about 25 miles from the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. During all those years—even when I was on an island with 1.5 million people and no car—I never gave much thought to what I would do if there were an accident or terrorist attack at a nearby nuclear plant. In fact, I was only dimly aware that these facilities even existed.

That was before 9/11 and Fukushima and Hurricane Sandy. Even today, though, I doubt that most people have taken time out of their busy lives to become informed about the risks they face, make escape plans for their families, build kits of the supplies they would need in case of an emergency, and—perhaps most important of all—practice what they would do.

September, designated as National Preparedness Month by the Federal Emergency Agency (FEMA), is also the 10th anniversary of FEMA’s “Ready” campaign, intended to help people prepare for natural disasters, pandemics, terrorist attacks, nuclear power plant failures, and other emergencies. FEMA claims that Americans are better prepared than ever, but in a country where a lot of people aggressively ignore inevitable disasters—inundation from rising seas, for example—it’s hard to predict what might happen during a fast-evolving emergency. There is a huge disconnect between the best-laid plans and how people actually behave under extreme stress.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is currently engaged in a multi-year process to revise its 1980 guidelines for radiological emergency response plans and incorporate lessons learned from Fukushima. The NRC is responsible for overseeing emergency preparedness at nuclear plants, which are operated by licensed independent companies, while FEMA oversees state and local governments’ off-site preparedness plans. Unfortunately, both agencies are operating under a number of mistaken assumptions.

People don’t always do what they’re told. Citizens want to know what they should do in a nuclear emergency. The NRC answers the question by advising people to “stay calm and listen to your local television or radio stations for updates and instructions from your state and local officials.” Does anyone seriously believe that people will sit calmly by their TVs during a meltdown?

Federal guidelines are designed to protect the public from high radiation levels, but they don’t take into account the strong likelihood that far more people will evacuate than are told to do so, a phenomenon known as “shadow evacuation.” Because of the dread and uncertainty associated with radiation, shadow evacuations are especially likely to occur during a nuclear accident.

Dread also makes it likely that parents will try to reach children they think are in harm’s way. Emergency plans typically call for teachers, nurses, and certain other workers to stay on the job during a crisis, but what if those people have children of their own at risk? During Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, some hospital patients died because supervisors told doctors and nurses to evacuate without their patients. And an estimated 80 percent of the people who evacuated in Japan were not even aware that a nuclear accident was happening. The tsunami wiped out power in many areas, making it difficult to get information via television, radio, or social media.

A 10-mile-radius may not be sufficient for emergency planning zones. Once it was evident that a major nuclear accident was under way in Fukushima, the NRC urged US citizens within 50 miles of the nuclear plant to evacuate. Back home, though, the emergency planning zone around each nuclear plant extends only 10 miles. And even during a general emergency (the highest classification), the NRC doesn’t necessarily plan to evacuate everyone within a 10-mile radius: “Generally as a minimum ... a two-mile ring around the plant is evacuated, along with people living in the 5-mile zone directly downwind and slightly to either side of the projected path of release,” its guidelines say. The NRC expects that people living outside this keyhole-shaped area would go indoors to monitor broadcasts.

A March 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office, though, warns that people outside the 10-mile zone might not be aware of preparedness procedures and might respond in unexpected ways during a radiological emergency. The report recommends that the NRC obtain better information about public awareness and likely behavior outside the emergency zone and says that, without this information, the NRC “may not be providing the best planning guidance to licensees and state and local authorities.”

It’s pretty obvious that increasing the size of emergency planning zones and evacuation areas would also increase the time estimates for evacuation. Meanwhile, the challenge continues to grow worse, as more and more people move into the vicinity of nuclear power plants, most of which are located along coastlines. What’s more, evacuation plans focus on the short-term risks of inhaling or ingesting high levels of radioactive material, while the general public is keenly aware of (and anxious to avoid) longer-term risks from lower doses of radiation.

Equipment doesn’t always function properly. Radiation released during nuclear accidents is invisible but can be detected by sensors—enabling officials to issue timely warnings or reassurances. However, sensors do not always perform as expected. For example, officials initially underestimated the radioactive releases at Fukushima because the radiation sensors closest to the nuclear plant failed during the disaster.

And even when equipment is working correctly, it can’t be counted on to safeguard the public. When the operators of Prairie Island and two other nuclear plants submitted revised emergency action levels—criteria used to determine the seriousness of an event—to the NRC in 2005, they neglected to test their radiation monitors to see whether they could detect the new thresholds. According to an NRC notice published eight years later, in February 2013, some of the instruments used to monitor radiation in effluent were incapable of displaying values high enough to trigger an alert.

Communications may be interrupted, and help may not arrive promptly. Many emergency plans assume that people in affected areas will be able to receive broadcasts from state and local officials via telephone, radio, and television. But what if the grid goes down? That possibility looms large, and it’s why more than 150 companies and organizations are gearing up for a November drill, called GridEx II, to test the government’s ability to respond to a major blackout. A grid failure wouldn’t just knock out power; it would cripple deliveries of food, fuel, and other supplies.

Earlier this year, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness admitted that there are “gaps” during mega-disasters, perhaps of several days, when official help might not come—as happened during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In an emergency that makes it hard to mobilize aid, the “first responders” are ordinary citizens helping one another. It’s important for those people to be prepared.

Some “doomsday preppers” are taking matters into their own hands by assembling “bug-out bags” that include items such as gas masks and iodine pills. But you don’t need a year’s supply of freeze-dried food from Costco to be ready for a nuclear accident. What you need is some information and training.

Practice shouldn’t be left to the professionals. The nuclear power industry, together with state and local officials, takes great pains to develop and test emergency response plans. Each nuclear power plant must conduct a full-scale emergency exercise every two years. But while practice is a good idea, it doesn’t go far enough.

For some victims of a nuclear accident, the NRC recommends a form of protection called “shelter in place.” Although comedians may poke fun at the notion that people can protect themselves with duct tape and garbage bags, sheltering in place—for example, by sealing a building’s windows, doors, and vents to avoid exposure to radioactive materials—is good advice in some situations. But unlike the “duck and cover” technique taught to a generation of schoolchildren, it isn’t practiced regularly. And without practice there can be no readiness.

In the United States, there has only been one evacuation for a nuclear emergency, and it was 34 years ago—when pregnant women and young children within five miles of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station in Pennsylvania were told to leave. Fortunately, what researchers have discovered by studying Three Mile Island, 9/11, and other disasters is that ordinary people typically do not lose their heads during an emergency. To the contrary, they often display a resourcefulness and solidarity that can play a vital role in the emergency response, and emergency planners can build on that capability. Nuclear preparedness is not just for professional first responders or even for the nearly three million people who live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant. It’s for everyone.