The Associated Press published a misleading article in newspapers across the country last week in which it largely calls into question some of the nuclear energy industry’s emergency preparedness programs. The article suggests that new changes to federal regulations were passed behind closed doors and fail to adequately test evacuation procedures. This mischaracterization in reporting, not a far cry from its faulty four-part series that was critiqued by the Columbia Journalism Review last year, could not be further from the truth as it blatantly disregards the latest scientific evidence on how accident scenarios could potentially unfold at nuclear energy facilities and the rigorous drill cycles conducted annually at the nation’s nuclear plants.
At issue here are changes that were approved last August by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to enhance the nuclear industry’s emergency preparedness regulations. Sue Perkins-Grew, NEI’s director of emergency preparedness, provides us with a quick overview of the changes:
Nuclear plant licensees are required to enhance their drill and exercise programs by incorporating a wide range of scenario elements, including hostile action. Scenarios used in the biennial evaluated exercises must be sufficiently varied to prevent participants from “anticipating” a response. To accommodate the added scenario elements in biennial exercises, the cycle was expanded to eight years from six years.
The additional emergency drill scenarios are incorporated into the existing drill cycle. The eight-year cycle amounts to something that looks like this:
- Four biennial exercises that include the following scenario variations (new scenarios denoted in blue):
- Hostile action directed at the plant site involving the integration of offsite resources with onsite response
- An initial classification of or rapid escalation to a “Site Area Emergency” or “General Emergency”
- No radiological release or an unplanned minimal radiological release that requires the site to declare a Site Area Emergency, but does not require the declaration of a General Emergency
- Off-hours and an unannounced exercise
- Demonstration of post-plume or ingestion pathway response
- A radiological release and declaration of a General Emergency that results in protective actions for the general public
- Additional drills and table top exercises that demonstrate a licensee’s ability to perform all key safety functions within an emergency response organization.
The added regulations complement the already comprehensive set of periodic drills that are conducted at the nation’s nuclear energy facilities. Some highlights of these drill programs are listed below.
- Approximately six to eight times per year, operators are evaluated on their ability to respond to a variety of accident events presented in a plant simulator.
- Operators are also tested by NRC inspectors on a biennial basis.
- Each nuclear plant site conducts routing training and drills to help their Emergency Response Organization members develop and maintain proficiency with assigned functions.
- Many training sessions and drills that include participation by state or local officials.
- One biennial exercise integrated with offsite public safety organizations that is evaluated by NRC and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) evaluators.
Given the already rigorous drill cycle and the additional scenario elements that have been incorporated as part of the NRC’s revised emergency preparedness rule, the nuclear energy industry believes that the new requirements further enhance the industry’s emergency response capabilities.
Perkins-Grew commented on the completeness of these reviews in a letter to the editor published over the weekend:
New requirements have been added to make these important integrated exercises less predictable. The new scenarios include: terrorist attacks; fires or explosions damaging large areas of a power plant; events that require activation of emergency responders but do not yield a significant radiological release, and events that escalate within 30 minutes to the highest emergency levels.
The new requirements build on existing emergency preparedness and response capabilities to add another layer of safety that is informed by the latest science.
Bottom line: Every U.S. nuclear energy facility has a comprehensive plan to respond to a wide range of scenarios.
Not only do the new NRC regulations require an increased frequency of drills on various challenging, high-risk scenarios, but they also layer in new scientific evidence that highly suggests that severe accidents at nuclear energy facilities will unfold more slowly than previously anticipated, resulting in a decreased potential for widespread dispersal of radioactive materials. The State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses (SOARCA) report, released in February, offers the following preliminary findings:
• Existing resources and procedures can stop an accident, slow it down or reduce its impact before it can affect the public;
• Even if accidents proceed uncontrolled, they take much longer to happen and release much less radioactive material than earlier analyses suggested; and
• The analyzed accidents would cause essentially zero immediate deaths and only a very, very small increase in the risk of long-term cancer deaths.
Given this new scientific evidence on the likely progression of a nuclear plant accident, the new NRC requirements call on emergency planners to focus on the two-mile radius where the public would most likely be impacted, an issue that The AP disagrees with.
Taking issue with the news report, the NRC published a “For the Record” last week that defended its approach:
Extensive research shows health risks from an accident would be greatest within two miles of a plant, so guidance for the new rule focuses on that close-in population. Getting the “two-mile” people relocated first is more effective than potentially clogging evacuation routes with people further away, and can ensure resources are available for protective actions within 10 miles of the plant. Other research, announced earlier this year, provides additional insight into how successful EP [emergency preparedness] procedures, combined with the slow-developing nature of a reactor accident, can keep the public safe.
This measured approach to evacuations ensures that responders can protect the health and safety of the public most at risk first in the unlikely event of an accident, while still monitoring for radiation and informing the public within a 10-mile emergency planning zone around the nuclear energy facility. In the event of a release of radiation, state and local governments will extend radiation monitoring and sampling out to a 50-mile radius to ensure that radioactive materials do not enter the food or drinking water supply.
Aside from the years of research and planning among the industry and federal regulators in testing, developing and implementing the new federal emergency preparedness requirements, The AP also wrongly asserts that the public was not involved in this thorough process. To this point, the NRC reinforced its commitment to transparency by explaining the many opportunities for which the public could comment:
The NRC discussed the proposed changes at public conferences in 2007 and 2008, and the agency issued draft rule language in early 2008. Additional public meetings on the draft language in 2008 were followed by a proposed rule published in the Federal Register for public comment in May 2009. The NRC took public input on the proposed rule for five months, holding a dozen public meetings and gathering several hundred comments. Staff from the NRC and FEMA briefed the Commission on Dec. 8, 2009, and May 3, 2011, both of which involved a panel of external stakeholders, regarding the proposed rule.
NEI also wanted to ensure that its key audiences were given the facts when it came to the nuclear energy industry’s exhaustive emergency preparedness procedures, which is why we videotaped the interview between Tony Pietrangelo, NEI’s chief nuclear officer, and an AP TV producer.
The U.S. nuclear energy industry is trained, tested and held accountable to its emergency response procedures by one of the world’s most stringent nuclear regulators. Without a doubt, our nation’s nuclear energy facilities are prepared for the unthinkable, despite The AP’s example of selective and incomplete reporting.
For more information, see NEI’s fact sheet on emergency preparedness at nuclear energy facilities.