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On MSNBC's Last Word on March 22, 2011, host Lawrence O'Donnell argued that evacuation plans for nuclear power plants in the United States are an unrealistic "fantasy" due to the huge population concentrations around them.
That's especially the case, he said, if there were a call to evacuate a 50-mile radius -- the distance the U.S. government recently urged Americans to evacuate around an earthquake-damaged Japanese nuclear power plant.
"The truth is, most Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell and his guest, Daniel Aldrich, author of Site Fights, used the example of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York. A 50-mile radius around that plant alone includes almost all of New York City, and large chunks of northern New Jersey -- more than 8 million people.
Aldrich said evacuating a 50-mile radius around the Indian Point plant would cause a "tremendous amount of confusion and chaos as people locally flee and try to preserve themselves."
Said O'Donnell: "There is no real evacuation plan from a place like Indian Point."
The nuclear disaster in Japan naturally causes people to consider how a similar disaster might play out In the United States. So we were curious about O'Donnell's claim that most Americans live within 50 miles of a power plant.
We turned first to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees emergency response plans in the event of a nuclear accident. The website includes a map of all the nuclear power reactors in operation in the U.S., so you can see how far away you live from one.
According to a Federal Emergency Management Agency analysis using 2000 census data, there were 184 million people who lived within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant in the U.S., the NRC reported.
According to the U.S. Census, there were 281 million people living in the U.S. in 2000. So by our math, about 65 percent of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant.
"They typically build power plants where there are large populations," said Patricia Milligan, senior technical advisor for emergency preparation and response at the NRC. "Populations need power. They kind of go hand-in-hand."
You could put power plants out in the middle of South Dakota, she said, but then the expense to transport the energy would be very high.
So O'Donnell's statistic was accurate.
But Milligan takes issue with O'Donnell's conclusion that evacuation plans are unrealistic.
The decision for the 50-mile evacuation in Japan was based on several unique factors, she said. First, she said, "the communication coming out of Japan was confusing and contradictory." In addition, she said, you had three reactors with significant core damage, and two spent fuel pools "appeared to be significantly compromised."
She's "completely confident" the complicating factors that led to the 50-mile evacuation recommendation in Japan wouldn't happen in the U.S. The NRC has "extremely good communication with the licensees." They also have an electronic reporting system, so they get the same information as the power plant operators in live-time.
"We're in a much better position to access and evaluate information," she said.
Emergency evacuation plans in the U.S. focus on 10-mile zones. Most accidents would not trigger an emergency response outside that 10-mile radius, Milligan said. But states and power plant operators are required to make emergency response plans for areas within 50 miles as well, including such things as protection of the food supply.
While it's true that most Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, those percentages drop off markedly when you consider 10- or 20-mile zones. According to FEMA data, about 8 percent of the American population lives within 20 miles of a nuclear power plant; and about 1.7 percent lives within 10 miles.
In other words, while power plants are usually located near large population centers, "they tend to put them in the outer suburbs," Milligan said.
Evacuations are an integral part of the emergency response plan, Milligan said. The NRC has done extensive study of emergency evacuations (for everything from floods to wildfires to gas leaks), and the agency is convinced they are feasible and realistic.
"Evacuations do save lives," Milligan said. "They happen all the time in the United States, and they work well."
But back to O'Donnell's statistic. He said most Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. About 65 percent of the population in 2000 lived within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. That's certainly most. We rate O'Donnell's statement True.
MSNBC, Video of Last Word program, March 22, 2011
Washington Post, "U.S. urges Americans within 50 miles of Japanese nuclear plant to evacuate; NRC chief outlines dangerous situation," by Brian Vastag, Rick Maese and David A. Fahrenthold, March 16, 2011
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Map of Power Reactor Sites
FEMA, Nuclear Power Plant Emergency
Red Cross, Nuclear Power Plant Incidents
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Assessment of Emergency Response Planning and Implementation for Large Scale Evacuations
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Development of Evacuation Time Estimate Studies for Nuclear Power Plants
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Identification and Analysis of Factors Affecting Emergency Evacuations
Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Populations within 10-, 20- and 50-mile radius of nuclear power plants in the U.S. (google speadsheet)
Interview with Patricia Milligan, senior technical advisor for emergency preparation and response at the NRC, March 23, 2011
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