What Would It Take To Evacuate a Nuclear Meltdown?

The U.S.' nuclear plants are getting older, becoming more unstable with age even as we demand more power of them. Meanwhile, population growth around these powerhouses has sky-rocketed, by as much as a factor of four in some places. Say you live in one of these cities. In the event of an emergency, how likely is it that you'll get out in time?

The Associated Press conducted an investigation into the state of the country's nuclear power plants and the regulations that govern the kind of response the government would undertake if something major went down. The results were not good.

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.

Some plans are merely on checklists, and never have been tested. In drills, responders typically go to command centers and not to their emergency posts. There is no federal requirement for how fast an evacuation must be carried out.

And disaster planners from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have made dubious assumptions about the public response to a major accident. They insist, for example, that people who are not called upon to evacuate will stay put; they're now saying that they might under some circumstances tell people to hunker down at home even in the 10-mile evacuation zone, and they believe people will do it.

That advice flies in the face of decades of science and policy, millions of dollars in planning and preparations - and common sense.

It also flies in the face of the advice given to Japanese citizens after the tsunami: That those living within 50-miles of the Fukushima Daiichi plant should evacuate.

All this should be taken in context. After all, the United States hasn't had a serious nuclear accident since Three-Mile Island in 1979. That was no Chernobyl. And even though "FEMA and the NRC acknowledge that radiation releases can happen within a half hour of an accident," the worst-case scenario is not something we'd think of as within the realm of possibility. But we already know that 50 power plants are leaking radioactive tritium. So, the numbers and the dangers still beg the question. What if?

Supposing you live within the 10-mile radius of the Indian Point nuclear complex in Buchanan, NY. The population there has grown by 32% since 1980, and more people live within that evacuation zone than in any other in the US, coming in at nearly 270 thousand people. While a 2004 study did estimate that an evacuation there would take approximately 12 hours, no subsequent studies have been done. Suffice it to say, it would be hard.

Let's push it further: the population living in the 50-mile radius around Indian Point comprises 6% of the entire U.S. population. That's 17 million people. Imagine moving 17 million people anywhere. Now imagine being one of 17 million people trying to cross tunnels and bridges that are congested on a good day in the midst of a full-scale nuclear emergency. Imagine being told to stay put when your child, significant other, or loved ones are miles away. The task would be beyond herculean.

Even taking this one example into account, what do officials have to do to ensure the safety of all these people? [USA Today, Image Credit: A.L. Spangler/Shutterstock]