Senator calls for probe of nuke evacuation plans

June 28, 2011 - 9:15 PM
Aging Nukes - Part 3

In this Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 picture, a sign along Route 9 in Ossining, N.Y. marks the spot for an emergency bus stop that is part of the Indian Point nuclear plant evacuation plan. Populations around nuclear plants have swelled since 1980, making effective evacuations unlikely in many once-rural emergency planning zones, according to an Associated Press investigation. Yet government and industry disaster planners have paid little attention to this dramatic growth, records show. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

A U.S. senator from Pennsylvania is asking for a congressional investigation of whether evacuation planning has kept pace with population growth and increased power levels around nuclear power plants.

The request by Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. was prompted by an Associated Press investigative series on aging nuclear reactors.

An installment of the series earlier this week reported that population within 10 miles of U.S. plants has risen an average of 62 percent over the past 30 years. Population more that doubled at 12 of 65 sites — with population at one site increasing more than 4 1/2 times since 1980.

Casey, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Joint Economic Committee, requested an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, which acts as the investigative arm of Congress. Casey posed similar questions to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. which jointly oversee emergency planning at the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors.

In his letter Tuesday to the GAO, Casey, whose state is home to nine operating reactors, said that emergency procedures are unclear for a nuclear accident.

"Many nuclear plants in the United States were intentionally built away from population and economic centers. As our country has grown, more of our citizens live in proximity to those plants. These new demographic realities require a reexamination of our security protocols," he wrote.

Five other U.S. senators last week asked for the GAO to investigate whether the NRC has relaxed safety standards to keep aging nuclear plants operating within the rules, as the AP reported. They also questioned if federal oversight is aggressive enough.

The peeling back of standards was the subject of another installment in the AP series, outlining how industry and the NRC have been working in concert to weaken or disregard safety standards to keep aging plants operating. The AP also reported that leaks of radioactive tritium, often from corroded underground piping, have occurred at three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites.

The NRC and industry have challenged the findings of the series. The NRC has defended its safety standards as strict. The leading industry group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, has attacked the AP findings as biased.

In its story about population growth, the AP reported that some estimates of evacuation times have not been updated in decades, even as residents would be directed to flee on antiquated, two-lane roads that clog hopelessly at rush hour.

The AP found serious weaknesses in plans for evacuations around the plants, including emergency drills that do not move people and fail to test different scenarios involving the weather or the time of day. Also, responders typically go to command centers during drills and not to their emergency posts.

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The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org