Emergency preparedness near nuclear power plants
||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.
||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.
|| 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.
|| 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
|| The emergency plan must
provide protective responses for the community in 10-mile and
50-mile "emergency planning zones."
|| 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
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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.
In June 1972, virtually all of Wilkes-Barre,
Pa.'s, 75,000 residents were evacuated in an hour after flood
warnings were issued.
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
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
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
Industry commitment to a high level of
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:
Emergency response plans are constantly upgraded
through lessons learned from actual plan activations, as well as
repeated drills, exercises and critiques.
Training programs are conducted annually for all
emergency response personnel. Training programs for operators and
technical staff must be accredited by the National Nuclear
Much-improved response facilities have been built
and existing facilities upgraded to aid effective handling of
Sophisticated plant computer systems have been
developed to serve as effective tools for dealing with
Advancements in communications technology have
improved the industry's ability to respond to serious conditions.
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.