Search 

About Education

Nuclear Facts
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

Education --> Nuclear Facts

SAFETY

Emergency preparedness near nuclear power plants

n Since 1980, every nuclear power plant in the United States has been required by federal law to create an on-site emergency response plan and ensure that off-site plans exist to protect public health and safety. On-site plans are approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Approval of off-site plans is coordinated between the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Both on- site and off-site plans must be approved for the plant to obtain—and retain—an operating license. 
n Each nuclear plant site must test its plan biennially in an emergency exercise. The performance of the on-site plan is evaluated by the NRC. State and local governments must also participate in the biennial exercise. Off-site plans are evaluated by FEMA. If the NRC or FEMA finds that the state of emergency preparedness does not provide adequate protective measures in the event of a radiological emergency, the NRC could take action against the plant's license.
n In April 2000, the NRC revised its plant oversight process for inspection, assessment and enforcement. Performance indicators for emergency preparedness include: assessment of the emergency response organization, drill participation, and the alert and notification system. Quarterly results are available on the NRC's Web site.
n In years when the graded emergency exercise is not being conducted, each plant site must conduct a training drill that tests the plant's response capabilities.
n The emergency plan must provide protective responses for the community in 10-mile and 50-mile "emergency planning zones." 
n Since 1991, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of events categorized as emergencies by the NRC. 

Since 1980, several communities have used nuclear plant emergency plans to cope with other types of emergencies, such as chemical spills and fires.

Emergency planning: A prerequisite to licensing
In 1980, after the accident at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant, Congress mandated that every U.S. nuclear power plant must develop—and test periodically—a comprehensive emergency response plan. The 1980 NRC Authorization Act strengthened and expanded the emergency preparedness requirements already imposed on nuclear plants. Before TMI, the NRC had required utilities to formulate and test emergency response plans. But these were limited to actions by emergency response organizations on site. Under current rules, the plans have a much broader reach. Local, state and even national officials are included in the plan, and in periodic exercises to demonstrate the plan's viability. At the power plants, the people involved in emergency preparedness now number a few hundred.

Today, no plant can operate in the United States without an approved and tested emergency response plan. New plants cannot operate above 5 percent power until the NRC approves both on-site and off-site plans. FEMA must review and provide recommendations to the NRC as to the adequacy of off-site emergency response plans of local and state agencies.

Emergency plans put to the test
In June 1996, the NRC issued a revised rule that reduced the required frequency of full-scale emergency exercises by each plant site from once a year to once every two years. For each exercise, the utility creates a confidential emergency scenario to be played out by on-site and off-site emergency response organizations, including plant employees, local hospitals, radiological monitoring teams and others. Post-exercise critiques by the federal agencies and the participants themselves identify areas that need to be corrected in future exercises or improvements that need to be made to the plan itself. If the objectives of the exercise are not met, or if either the NRC or FEMA gives failing marks to any aspect of the exercise, the utility must correct the deficiencies in a timely fashion, or the NRC can take action on the operating license of the plant.

In its revised rule, the NRC also required plants to conduct training drills in the alternate years to test at least some of each plant's response capabilities. These drills may include participation by state and local emergency management officials. Since the drills are not graded, supervised instruction and resolution of the drill scenarios' problems are permitted.

NRC headquarters and regional staff participate in at least one emergency exercise per year in each region. The agency's 24-hour-a-day emergency response facility and its response teams—which are trained in resource management, coordination and support, and liaison among federal, state and local officials—are critiqued on their responses to the simulated emergency.

More frequently, unannounced drills of various aspects of a plant's response plan are conducted to develop and maintain key skills, including coordination, communications, assessment of emergency medical and fire brigade response, and radiation dose assessment. Each utility must also provide for initial training and annual retraining of everyone with emergency response responsibilities.

Federal agencies have joined utility, state and local officials in two "federal field exercises"—the first at Florida Power & Light's St. Lucie plant and the second at Commonwealth Edison's Zion plant. Tabletop response/recovery exercises were held in 1985 at Duquesne Light's Beaver Valley plant and in 1990 at Entergy's River Bend plant. In 1993, a federal radiological monitoring assessment center exercise was held at the Omaha Public Power District's Fort Calhoun plant.

Such extensive field testing of emergency plans maintains a continued state of readiness, upgrades emergency preparedness based on lessons learned from drills and exercises, and demonstrates coordination among all parties to ensure a totally integrated and effective response to any emergency.

Protecting the neighbors
Federal guidelines require a plant to ensure that protective responses are in place for communities in 10-mile and 50-mile "emergency planning zones." Residents within the 10-mile emergency planning zones are provided with information—frequently in the form of calendars, brochures or messages in the public-service section of local telephone directories—explaining radiation and telling them what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency. They learn how they would be notified to tune in to the National Emergency Alert System—either by sirens, tone-alert radios, the "Paul Revere" method or a combination.

Included, too, is information noting that a potentially serious accident, if it occurred, would likely evolve over a period of several hours, thus providing time for orderly sheltering or evacuation, if necessary. In the 50-mile emergency planning zones, state agencies formulate plans for radiological monitoring and for protecting residents against consumption of possibly contaminated food and water.

Real-life activation of emergency response plans
A 1989 Nuclear Energy Institute study showed that during the nine-year period 1980-1988, the United States experienced 250 emergencies that each required the evacuation of more than 1,000 people. None were related to the operation of a nuclear power plant. The emergencies ranged from hurricanes and floods to spills and leaks of toxic chemicals.

Several nuclear emergency response plans, however, were activated successfully by local officials for use in non-nuclear emergencies. All the evacuations were performed safely and in an orderly fashion. A few examples:

n

The evacuation of 10,000 people from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in July 1985, following a fire at a city-operated sewage treatment plant that dispersed a black cloud of toxic fumes over the city. State and local officials used a draft plan developed for Alliant Energy's Duane Arnold nuclear plant.

n

The evacuation of 17,000 residents of St. Charles Parish, La., following a leak from a nearby chemical plant in December 1982. State and local officials worked from a draft plan for Entergy's Waterford 3 nuclear plant, which was not yet operating.

n

The evacuation of 13,000 people from Nanticoke, Pa., in March 1987, when fire from a metal plant blanketed the community with toxic smoke. Pennsylvania Power & Light's Susquehanna nuclear plant response plan was used.

n

The evacuation of about 6,000 residents and visitors from Grover City, Calif., in July 1985, when a 10-day fire consumed more than 75,000 acres of nearby grassland. The evacuation was based on the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant emergency plan produced by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Some critics have voiced skepticism that any large number of people could be evacuated in a short time period. But experience demonstrates the opposite. 

n

In August 1965, nearly all of the 150,000 people living in Baton Rouge, La., were evacuated in only two hours following an accident involving a chlorine-carrying barge.

n

In June 1972, virtually all of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.'s, 75,000 residents were evacuated in an hour after flood warnings were issued.

n

Several large-scale evacuations preceding oncoming hurricanes have been carried out successfully, including the 1980 evacuation of 400,000 from Corpus Christi, Texas, to escape Hurricane Allen; the 1985 evacuation of 300,000 from Pinellas County, Fla., in advance of Hurricane Elena; evacuations from Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina totaling 318,000 in the path of Hurricane Gloria in 1985; and evacuation of several hundred thousand from south Dade County, Fla., as Hurricane Andrew approached in 1992.

NEI's 1989 study of evacuations found that communities that had conducted field exercises of emergency plans performed better than communities that had not. The study concluded that there was significant value in testing plans, probably because such tests revealed areas in need of improvement.

The crash of USAir Flight 427 in Pennsylvania in September 1994 called on the expertise of the emergency responders from Beaver County, who had trained and practiced through many years of drills and exercises with Duquesne Light's Beaver Valley nuclear power plant. Employees of Beaver Valley's emergency preparedness department worked with the local emergency management agency in the recovery effort. The plant also filled the state emergency management agency's request for disposable suits, gloves, boots, etc., for use by workers at the crash site, which had been declared a biological hazard.

Emergency action levels
Not all nuclear plant "emergencies" are major. The NRC provides guidelines for classifying incidents at nuclear plants based on their potential severity, ranging from "notification of unusual event" (no emergency-plan activation needed) to "alert," "site area emergency" and "general emergency."

Based on industry experience, NEI developed an improved methodology for utilities to determine emergency action levels. In August 1992, the NRC endorsed the methodology, which utilities can now use as an alternative approach. In February 2000, NEI submitted an updated methodology, including lessons learned, decommissioning, dry storage, and shutdown classifications. The new method clarifies conditions that would lead to a particular classification and brings greater consistency to the process.

Since 1991 there has been a dramatic drop in the number of events categorized as emergencies by the NRC. The number of declared emergency events, which fell from 63 in 1996 to 40 in 1997, declined still further to a total of 30 in 1998 and 1999. Credit for the decrease goes to nuclear operating companies' voluntary implementation of an industry-developed methodology or the NRC's Branch Technical Position for classifying emergency action level events.

Industry commitment to a high level of preparedness
Emergency preparedness at U.S. nuclear power plants is an integral part of daily operations. A commitment to excellence throughout the industry, coupled with continual training and testing, has produced a much higher level of preparedness than existed prior to 1979. For example:

n

Emergency response plans are constantly upgraded through lessons learned from actual plan activations, as well as repeated drills, exercises and critiques.

n

Training programs are conducted annually for all emergency response personnel. Training programs for operators and technical staff must be accredited by the National Nuclear Accrediting Board.

n

Much-improved response facilities have been built and existing facilities upgraded to aid effective handling of emergencies.

n

Sophisticated plant computer systems have been developed to serve as effective tools for dealing with emergencies.

n

Advancements in communications technology have improved the industry's ability to respond to serious conditions.

n

Effective methods have been developed to assess performance in drills and exercises, and to improve emergency preparedness through lessons learned.

The Nuclear Energy Institute holds annual workshops and information exchanges so industry emergency planners can share lessons learned.

Related links