3/31/16 Santa Maria Sun – Letters to the Editor: Communities need better emergency planning in case of nuclear meltdown

Communities need better emergency planning in case of nuclear meltdown

Ben Smilowitz – executive director, Disaster Accountability Project –

In your recent article, “Diablo Canyon evacuation plans inadequate, report says,” dated March 17, local emergency managers vigorously defended area emergency plans despite the fact that most reported not having plans in response to information requests just months before.

The weather patterns in Central California on March 11 and 12, 2011, the day a tsunami knocked out backup generators, triggering the meltdown of the seaside Japanese commercial nuclear power plant, would have blown a radioactive plume deep into Santa Barbara County, sparing much of SLO County. The potential for evacuation and shelter-in-place orders, 50 plus miles from the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, give good reason to ask whether opportunities exist to improve safety for the nearly half-million people living within 50 miles of the nuclear plant that sits on an active fault by the Pacific Ocean.

The official answer from PG&E (the plant operator), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and local officials is that planning is sufficient. After all, federal regulations only require a 10-mile emergency/evacuation planning zone surrounding nuclear plants. To the credit of SLO County, it appears their planning expands beyond that 10-mile minimum and that’s fantastic, but not a reason for overconfidence. Here’s why: Despite SLO County’s best efforts, its plans may be far less effective if surrounding jurisdictions are not sufficiently planning. And they are not.

After the Fukushima disaster, Japan evacuated 150,000 citizens within 19 miles of the plant. The U.S. government advised Americans to evacuate to a 50-mile radius. Since there have been calls for the U.S. government to update its emergency planning guidance beyond the 10-mile zone, including a report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that called for the NRC to improve its understanding of public education and the likely response beyond 10 miles. The NRC, not known for its independence of the nuclear industry, says not to worry, citing “a robust capacity” by state and local jurisdictions to “effectively evacuate.”

Such a bold claim hinged on an assumption about local emergency planning could not go unchecked. Disaster Accountability Project sent information requests to hundreds of cities and counties across the country, including nine within 50-miles of Diablo Canyon. We wanted to know if area jurisdictions even mentioned Diablo Canyon in their emergency plans. We asked about whether they had in their possession “shadow evacuation plans or studies” about the likely rate of evacuation outside the 10-mile planning zone.

Our findings were consistent across the country. Within the mandated 10-mile “emergency planning zone” we found most jurisdictions could share plans that specifically discussed the nearby nuclear plant. However, outside that 10-mile zone, the vast majority of jurisdictions had nothing.

This exercise is not about pointing fingers. The public needs to know whether their local officials have plans in place for the unexpected, and we consider this inquiry a wake-up call for the region. Central California residents should demand better plans and not wait for the federal government to extend its mandate.