by M. Herschel Specter, former AEC Licensing Manager for Indian Point 3
On November 16, 2015 Jim Malatras, New York State’s Director of Operations, wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners arguing that the applications for extending the licenses of the two operating nuclear plants at Indian Point should be denied. His central reasoning was “Indian Point’s proximity to a major population center in New York City and surrounding areas-make it absolutely impossible to have an effective safety and evacuation plan”. This is just not so.
Malatras repeated an often used straw man that since it would be impossible to evacuate the 20 million people who lived within 50 miles of these plants, the plants should be shut down. There is no basis found in science or found in the reviews of actual nuclear accidents for evacuating out to 50 miles. Such a massive evacuation itself would likely be more dangerous than the near term radiological health effects of any nuclear accident.
Only the 20,000 or so people who live within two miles of the Indian Point plants need be evacuated, a number a thousand times smaller than the one Malatras used. This much smaller group would be evacuated prior to the release of any radioactive material. Other people, downwind from the damaged nuclear plant, would be advised to take shelter and some, if they were in a “hot spot”, would be relocated, even if this hot spot was beyond the present ten mile emergency planning zone (EPZ). Food and water would be monitored to prevent improper ingestion. There would be ample time to take all of these simple protective actions.
Such a simple emergency response would be highly effective. Zero near term radiological health effects, such as injuries or fatalities, would be expected because the range of such hazards is very short, between zero and two miles from the site. This is the basis of a two mile pre-emptive evacuation. Long term radiological health effects beyond two miles, if any, would be too small to be detectable, statistically. Sheltering beyond two miles is the preferred emergency response.
How do we know that there would be such limited radiological effects if a meltdown at Indian Point occurred? First, modern computer analyses developed at our national laboratories give a very different picture of what nuclear accidents might look like compared to severe accident estimates generated years ago. Today we know that nuclear accidents would release far less radioactive material into the environment, that many hours would pass before this radioactive material entered the environment, and that the release would occur more slowly, i.e., radioactive releases would be smaller, later, and more gradual than what old technology indicated. These accident characteristics greatly simplify emergency planning for all nuclear power plant sites.
Second, we have the lessons learned from the three simultaneous reactor meltdowns five years ago at Fukushima. The emergency situation at Fukushima was extreme: the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan, a tsunami much higher than what was planned for, a complete loss of electric power at the three nuclear plants, flooding in the lower areas in the plants, most instrumentation inoperable, a significant loss of communications, and hydrogen explosions.
Emergency workers outside of the power plants had to simultaneously deal with the earthquake, the tsunami, and three simultaneous reactor meltdowns. Yet the World Health Organization has concluded that there were no near term radiological health effects and that long term radiological health effects would be too small to be detectable. Since the emergency response at Fukushima was highly effective even under such extreme conditions, a similar emergency response would also be highly effective at Indian Point.
The releases of radioactive material at Fukushima were smaller, later, and more gradual than what would have been predicted years before the accident, i.e., they showed the same general characteristics as the computer analyses generated by our national laboratories. Additionally, the Japanese used an emergency response where the inner two miles were pre-emptively evacuated, there was downwind sheltering and, later, relocation of people from hot spots, some of which were beyond their EPZ.
Although the radiological effects of the accident were near zero, there was a large over-evacuation and to date 1600 fatalities have occurred from this over-evacuation. Over-evacuation, such as attempting some huge 50 mile evacuation, must be avoided. Even just evacuating the whole Indian Point ten mile Emergency Planning Zone is far too much. The emergency plan for Indian Point described above uses lessons learned from Fukushima and modern science. It minimizes both the radiological and non-radiological hazards.
Two upstate nuclear power plants may shut down because of financial reasons. The Governor is rightly concerned that if these two sources of carbon-free electricity do close, the state’s climate change program would be eviscerated. However, the two Indian Point plants produce about 65% more carbon-free electricity than the two upstate plants. Shut down Indian Point and the state’s climate change program would also be eviscerated, even if the upstate nuclear plants continued to operate.
With nuclear power risks now known to be far smaller than thought before and with climate change effects getting ever more serious, it is time to make some important adjustments: keep all of the state’s nuclear plants operating, even if this calls for some kind of temporary financial support for the upstate plants, extend the licenses of the IndianPoint plants, and update the Indian Point emergency plan. This would be a win-win result for all. Let us focus on dealing with climate change, a far more serious challenge than Indian Point.
Commentary: Mr. Specter’s evacuation planning recommendation does not apply just to Indian Point. When combined with a biological science-based definition of hot spots intense enough to present any risk at all to humans, plants or animals, it offers an important step in gaining both government and public acceptance of nuclear energy.
Contrary to what we’ve been told over the years, not only is the probability of major accidents at nuclear power facilities incredibly low–not zero–but the potential consequences of those accidents are manageable without significant impact on human health or property.