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Experts worry U.S. not prepared for nuclear disaster

Following the nuclear reactor troubles in Fukushima, Japan, U.S. officials recommended that evacuees travel at least 50 miles from the site of the radiation leak. That decision alarmed some nuclear energy analysts in the U.S., where the standard for preplanned evacuations is 10 miles.

In the United States, there are dozens of nuclear reactors located within 20 miles of communities with populations of at least 100,000 people, and that is by design, says Patricia Milligan, senior technical advisor in the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). "You typically put power plants where there is a population" in order to efficiently transmit electricity to residents.

nuclear disaster insuranceThe NRC says nuclear power plant operators, as a condition of their license, must develop and update emergency plans that meet federal requirements. The NRC's objective is to ensure that the plant operators are capable of protecting public safety in the event of a radiation leak. Milligan maintains that these plans are effective and adequate.

The problem in New York

U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) has expressed doubt about her constituents' ability to successfully evacuate millions of residents near the Indian Point Energy Center at Buchanan, New York. According to the NRC, Indian Point is one of the most likely U.S. nuclear reactors to cause significant disaster. The chief concern is that it lies near a fault line about 35 miles north of highly populated Manhattan.

"The NRC should evaluate how a similar incident in the New York metropolitan area could be further complicated due to a dramatically higher population and the effectiveness of proposed evacuation routes," Lowery said in a prepared statement. "We simply cannot allow those who live in the New York metropolitan area to be susceptible to such risks."

The potential for damage from an earthquake at the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City has led the NRC to make a review of seismic risk there a top priority.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has described the Indian Point plant as a "catastrophe waiting to happen." In March, Cuomo announced that the NRC had pledged to make Indian Point its highest priority in its review of seismic risks at nuclear facilities throughout the country. Cuomo has questioned whether a successful evacuation from communities near the Indian Point plant is feasible.

Disorderly evacuations

In California, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have issued similar statements of concern about nuclear plants in their state. They recently asked the NRC to perform inspections and evaluate preparedness at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near San Luis Obispo.

Both of those facilities are located near earthquake faults. About 7.4 million people live within 50 miles of San Onofre and 424,000 live within 50 miles of the Diablo Canyon plant. Rochelle Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, says moving that many to people safely would be an enormous task.

"There are more questions than answers," Becker says. "The truth is, it would be very difficult. Evacuation plans do not include panic. They assume an orderly evacuation."

Michael S. Gossman, president of the American Association for Physicists in Medicine for the Ohio River Valley chapter, also lacks confidence in the system. He says a widespread evacuation of any major American population center would be difficult to accomplish. In many cases, highways simply are not up to the task. For example, unanticipated damage to a section of Interstate 5 disrupted evacuation efforts during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state, he notes.

Evacuating large U.S. communities that house nuclear power plants beyond a 50-mile radius "is not something that we have prepared for," Gossman says. "We would just make the best of it."

Confidence at the NRC

Milligan of the NRC says fears about evacuations during a nuclear accident are misplaced. After monitoring the response of U.S. emergency agencies to chemical spills, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters, the NRC is confident that timely and orderly evacuations could be accomplished in high-population areas surrounding nuclear reactors.

"We found that evacuation saves lives and people generally do not die in evacuations," she explains. "They get out safely. The most effective notification methods were firemen and police going through neighborhoods with blow horns. You find a highly knowledgeable population that understands the evacuation process."

Inadequate home insurance coverage

Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a consumer organization, worries that many potential disasters -- such as the combined earthquake, tsunami and radiation leak that hit Japan -- would not be adequately covered by standard home insurance policies or the provisions of the Price-Anderson Act. Passed in 1957, the act ensures that funds are available to satisfy liability claims. It also limits the liability of companies involved in certain nuclear activities, such as those that operate power plants.

In the event of a nuclear accident similar to the one in Japan, "I am not optimistic that people would have a source of insurance money for temporary rent," Bach adds. "What would happen if their house was condemned because it was exposed to radioactivity?"

While individual and group health insurance policies generally would cover the treatment of injuries resulting from an unexpected discharge of nuclear radiation, standard home insurance policies exclude reimbursement for many things that could trigger a radiation leak, such as earthquakes, floods and landslides, she notes.

The accident in Japan should prompt regulators to take another look at home insurance exclusions, she adds.

"I don't want people to lose faith in the insurance system," she says. "What I want is for insurance regulators to face the fact that they are going to have to start policing exclusions a lot more than they have been."

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