3/12/16 The Mercury News: Fukushima’s 5th anniversary spurs calls for more protection at Limerick nuke plant03/14/2016 Ben Smilowitz Comments Closed
Fukushima’s 5th anniversary spurs calls for more protection at Limerick nuke plant
By Evan Brandt, The Mercury
Posted: 03/12/16, 5:56 PM EST
LIMERICK >> A disaster planning advocacy group marked the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe Friday by revisiting the question of adequate evacuations in the area around the Limerick nuclear plant.
The non-profit Disaster Accountability Project released a 19-page report Friday which looks beyond the 10-mile evacuation zone around Exelon Nuclear’s Limerick Generating Station.
The report notes that when the seaside Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was damaged by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, U.S. officials advised Americans in Japan to evacuate 50 miles away from the plant to avoid harm.
However, current regulations in the U.S. require “emergency planning zones” for only a 10-mile radius around the nation’s roughly 100 operating nuclear plants — including Limerick.
Outside the 10-mile zones, local governments are not required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or Federal Emergency Management Agency to plan for radiological emergency evacuations, or to educate the general public on what to do in the event of a radiological emergency.
Exelon Nuclear’s 2012 Evacuation Time Estimate study indicates there are 279,016 people living within the 10-mile emergency planning zone around the Limerick plant.
When the circle is expanded to the 50-mile radius recommended in Japan, that number swells to more than eight million people, according to a 2010 study by the natural Resources Defense Council.
The Disaster Accountability Project’s latest report looked at how many counties with towns outside the 10-mile emergency zone provided any kind of emergency information — and more specifically information about a radiological incident at Limerick.
The short answer is very few.
Only two of the 15 counties between 10 and 50 miles of the Limerick plant contacted by DAP — Chester and Bucks counties — provided any kind of information to the residents outside the 10-mile zone regarding a radiological emergency and none of them provided any official information specific to an accident at the Limerick plant.
“State and local authorities should not wait for the imposition of federal regulatory mandates to implement this planning into state and local preparedness efforts,” the report concluded.
“Limerick Generating Station has a robust emergency plan to protect the health and safety of the public, including those living outside the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone,” David Tillman, senior communications manager for Exelon Nuclear, wrote in an email response to a query.
“The station meets or exceeds all emergency planning regulations, which are dictated by the federal government,” said Tillman. “Emergency plans are constantly evolving, regularly practiced and tested by FEMA and the NRC.”
The DAP report expands on a 2013 effort by the federal Government Accountability Office, requested by U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, which considered a phenomenon called “shadow evacuations.”
Working under the likelihood that an incident at the Limerick plant would spur people who live beyond the 10-mile radius to also attempt to flee, the GAO studied how many were likely to join the exodus and the impact that would have on current evacuation plans closer to the plant.
The GAO found that the NRC has never studied “likely responses outside the 10-mile zone” and thus “could not be confident that its estimates — (20 percent) — for shadow evacuations outside the zone” are accurate enough to serve as a basis for emergency planning.
But in 2014, the NRC rejected the call to expand the emergency planning zone from 10 to 25 miles.
“The NRC is denying the petition because the agency concludes that the current size of 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,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said at the time.
Asked for a response to the DAP report, Sheehan responded Friday with an email which read, in part: “FEMA has not changed its assessment that it continues to have ‘reasonable assurance’ that the plans for the Limerick nuclear power plant will be effective if needed.”
Sheehan added that “those plans are put to the test once every two years during a full-scale emergency exercise, with the NRC assessing on-site response and FEMA evaluating off-site response. The most recent such exercise for Limerick was Nov. 17. We did not identify any concerns based on our review of the exercise.”
Beyond questions of evacuations, the NRC has implemented changes at plants around the country —Limerick included — as a result of what it calls “lessons learned” from Fukushima.
Among the Fukushima-related requirements at Limerick, which has the same GE boiling water nuclear reactors as the Japanese plant, are something called “hardened wet well vents,” designed to prevent the build-up of hydrogen gas which caused an explosion at the Japanese plant.
The NRC has also required that Exelon obtain and be prepared to deploy additional back-up pumps and generators to keep the plant operating safely should power and back-up power be lost.
Last April, the NRC granted Exelon’s request to extend the deadline for the upgrades, giving Exelon until the spring re-fueling shut-down of 2017 for the vents to be installed in the Unit 2 generator; and until the spring re-fueling shut-down of 2018 for the Unit 1 generator vents to be installed.
Sheehan said last week that Exelon is on target to meet those deadlines.