Under rules in force since 1978, communities near nuclear plants must prepare federally reviewed evacuation plans only for those living within 10 miles of the facility. That's because in a severe accident, most of the early deaths those from radiation sickness, not cancer are predicted to occur within the first 10 miles. While that zone can be adjusted during an accident, the panel says emergency plans should account for how each nuclear power plant would react in a disaster before it happens. And if evacuation needs to occur, wind patterns and population also should be considered, the panel said.
"It's a matter of planning," said Michael Corradini, director of the University of Wisconsin's Institute of Nuclear Systems and the panel's co-chair. "For certain types of events and certain severities, they may change how they evacuate, or who would evacuate."
An AP investigation in June found that populations around the nation's nuclear power plants have swelled since the facilities were first built but that little has been done to account for the risks associated with evacuating so many more people.
The NRC approved a rule in August requiring nuclear plants to update estimates of how long it would take to evacuate nearby communities in an emergency. Plant operators now will have to update evacuation estimates after every 10-year census or when changes in population would increase the estimated time by at least 30 minutes.
The commission has not addressed the evacuation distance issue.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has said that the 10-mile rule is merely a "planning standard" that could be modified in the "unlikely event" of an accident, based on the circumstances.
"So if we needed to take action beyond 10 miles, that's certainly what we would recommend," Jaczko said after touring the Indian Point nuclear complex, about 25 miles from New York City, last year.
The report also found the NRC's recommendation that Americans living within 50 miles of Japan's Fukushima plant leave the area "puzzling."
"I still don't know what the assumptions were that led to that, what kind of calculations were done," said Dale Klein, who headed the NRC from July 2006 to May 2009 and co-chaired the panel. "We just don't understand what the technical basis for that recommendation was."
The 50-mile zone was greater than Japanese officials recommended for their own citizens after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima facility. The expert committee found that the mandatory evacuation ordered by the Japanese government for all citizens to evacuate within 12 miles of the site, and a voluntary evacuation for those within 18 miles, was adequate.