NRC rejects bid to expand nuclear evacuation zones

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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Wednesday it had denied a post-Fukushima petition to expand the emergency planning zones around the country’s nuclear power plants, saying the current zones are sufficient.

Apr. 10, 2014

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Wednesday it had denied a post-Fukushima petition to expand the emergency planning zones around the country’s nuclear power plants, saying the current zones are sufficient.
The petition was filed in February 2012 by the international nonprofit, Nuclear Information Resource Service, 11 months after the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster in Japan. It was supported by 37 environmental organizations across the county, including the Cape Downwinders.
More than 3,000 people asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider them co-petitioners, and nearly 6,000 comments of support were submitted, according to the nonprofit’s blog.
“The NRC has failed the American people,” said Michael Mariotte, president of Nuclear Information Resource Service, in a written statement. “Rather than learn from Fukushima and act appropriately to protect the public, the agency has chosen to protect the nuclear power industry yet again.”
The petition asked the NRC to expand the current 10-mile-radius emergency planning zone to 25 miles; to create a new, 50-mile “emergency response zone”; and to expand the “ingestion pathway zone” — where drinking water and food could become contaminated — from 50 to 100 miles.
Cape Cod currently falls into the ingestion pathway zone of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station but the region would have shifted into the “emergency response zone” had the petition prevailed.
The shift would have addressed the longtime complaint from Cape legislators and activists that there’s “no escape from the Cape.” As part of the petition’s provisions, nuclear plant owners would have been required to identify evacuation routes for all residents in the emergency response zone and annually provide information about the routes.
“It’s more of the same,” said state Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich, of the petition’s denial. “I don’t know what we have to do to have our government regulators be more responsive to concerns from our region.”
Diane Turco, founder of the Cape Downwinders, expressed disappointment but not surprise.
“Once again, the NRC will not uphold its mandate and should be investigated by Congress,” Turco said. “The NRC will defend the nuclear industry’s right to do business over our right of safety.”
In an email, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said his agency denied the petition because it concluded “the current size of the emergency planning zones is appropriate for existing reactors and because emergency plans will provide an adequate level of protection of the public health and safety in the event of an accident at a nuclear power plant.”
On Wednesday, the Barnstable county commissioners joined the chorus of towns and groups calling for the Plymouth plant’s shutdown.
Commissioners also plan to demand that appropriate government agencies and Entergy Corp., which owns the plant, provide Cape Codders with a viable evacuation plan. Even if Pilgrim were shut down, more than 3,000 highly radioactive spent fuel rods would remain stored there.
The document considered by the commissioners Wednesday was a draft suggested by Cape Downwinders.
County Commissioner William Doherty thought the petition should be more powerful.
“I want to sign a document that has an effect and doesn’t just state a position,” Doherty said.
The Downwinders’ draft called upon the NRC to revoke Pilgrim’s license. It noted that all 15 Cape towns have signed petitions calling to shut the plant; that no viable evacuation plan exists for Cape Cod; and that the region’s largest environmental organization, the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, has called for Pilgrim’s decommissioning.
It also cited Gov. Deval Patrick’s most recent request to the NRC to close the plant.
“I believe the federal government, state government and the corporation need to be put on notice,” Doherty said. “There has to be evidence of a tangible commitment for an evacuation plan for Cape Cod. They need to take responsibility for the 216,000 people on the Cape.”
Mary Pat Flynn, chairman of commissioners, said issues such as evacuation should have been considered before the plant was built.
“We are entirely vulnerable because we can’t go anywhere,” Flynn said. “When you talk about risk assessments, you talk risks and options. Our options are nearly zero.”
Downwinder member Janet Azarovitz predicted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will say there are plans in place.
“Then we should say we recognize there are plans in place but they’re not adequate,” said County Commissioner Sheila Lyons. “I think we have to be more forceful.”
Flynn said the county petition will be addressed to the NRC but will also be sent to several other agencies.
Asked for comment on the petition, Sheehan responded in an email that the NRC would review the petition and respond in a “timely” manner.
He also noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is responsible for evaluating off-site emergency planning for U.S. nuclear power plants.

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