Nuclear Evacuation Preps in Question for Chicago Area Communities

A radiological leak at one of Illinois’ six nuclear power plants could create a plume that puts people, water and food supplies at risk depending on factors such as wind speed and wind direction.

While there has yet to be a major radiological incident in Illinois, NBC 5 Investigates obtained documents that show some communities in the Chicago area may not be prepared to handle a nuclear-related evacuation as well as others.

Local jurisdictions within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant are required by the federal government to plan for evacuations specific to a radiological incident. Counties such as Grundy, Will, and Kendall are located near the Dresden Generating Station in Morris and therefore plan for evacuations with the help of power plant owner Exelon.

“We focus on how we will protect the public,” said Will County Emergency Management Director Harold Damron. “If we had to evacuate we would certainly begin with those closest in to the plant.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said predetermined protection plans designed to avoid or reduce dose from potential ingestion of radioactive materials are in place for areas out to 50 miles from a nuclear reactor site. However, evacuation planning is not required for jurisdictions located beyond 10 miles.

Keep in mind, the US government urged Americans within 50 miles of Japan’s Fukushima Daicchi nuclear power plant to evacuate during a meltdown there in 2011. A spokesperson for the NRC said that decision was made out of caution.

While the Illinois Emergency Management Agency said once a plume gets further out it becomes less of a hazard and emergency crews have more time to react, the non-profit Disaster Accountability Project said local governments are planning to the “bare bones minimum” because there is no mandate from Washington.

“That’s a clear failure in planning,” said Ben Smilowitz of Disaster Accountability Project. “Instead of waiting for the federal government to do the right thing, we’re asking local jurisdictions to plan anyway.”

In fact, an open records request conducted by Disaster Accountability Project revealed none of the sixteen largest jurisdictions within 10 to 50 miles of Dresden produced evacuation plans specific to Dresden. Emergency management officials from those local governments either stated the documents did not exist, did not provide a response, or stated the documents were exempt from disclosure.

The population within 50 miles of Dresden Generating Station, for example, is more than 7,000,000 people. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists said it believes biennial emergency exercises involving local governments should periodically include expanding the 10 mile evacuation planning zone (EPZ) to include protective health measures, including sheltering, evacuation and potassium iodide pills.

“It would be prudent public policy to verify that Americans within 50 miles of US reactors can be protected in event of an accident,” said Dave Lochbaum, the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Nuclear Safety Project.

Congressman Bill Foster, who represents many communities within 10 to 50 miles of Dresden, said it has been suggested that a lower level of planning for less immediate mitigating actions may be appropriate for communities at larger distances.

“I am taking a close look at the recommendations from the NRC, FEMA, and others and will do everything I can to ensure that local communities in the 11th District have the resources they need to respond in the event of both natural and man-made emergencies,” Foster said.

The public records request also revealed local governments within 10 to 50 miles of Dresden do not appear to be preparing for shadow evacuations specific to Dresden. Shadow evacuations occur when residents unnecessarily evacuate and clog roadways.

“They are not ready for the flood of nuclear evacuees that would flow out of the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone and seek shelter in their communities, not to mention potentially large numbers of spontaneous 'shadow' evacuees who would also flee in panic, despite no official orders to do so,” said Kevin Kamps of Beyond Nuclear.

Smilowitz added shadow evacuation planning is especially important to consider in the age of social media, where news travels faster than ever before. A US Government Accountability Office report also found officials do not know how the public outside of the 10 mile EPZ would respond.

However, studies cited by Exelon and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency show the risk of shadow evacuations would be minimal due to lower population levels near the state’s six nuclear power plants.

“It would certainly slow down the evacuation slightly, but according to the evacuation time estimates it wouldn’t be any substantial amount of time so it wouldn’t be a burden,” said Bill Conway, manager of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency’s (IEMA) Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program.

In a statement to NBC 5 Investigates, the NRC wrote “the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which jointly oversee emergency preparedness around nuclear power plants, are confident that US nuclear power plant emergency preparedness programs will protect public health and safety.”

The statement also said the NRC and FEMA are confident state and local agencies can and will take appropriate protective actions in the event of a nuclear plant accident.

IEMA nuclear experts can remotely monitor radiological levels from Illinois’ reactors and the areas surrounding them. Sensors placed around each nuclear plant also send real time radiological reports to Springfield.

“I feel that Illinois is better prepared than any other state to handle a major incident because of all the practice we do, because all the data we have, the expertise,” said Kay Foster, IEMA bureau chief for nuclear facility safety.

Utilities such as Exelon are also required to make evacuation and sheltering information available to members of the public residing within the ten mile emergency planning zone.

“I think it’s very important that we all are focused on keeping people safe as we operate these facilities and all other critical businesses in our infrastructure, “ said Jim Meister, Vice President of Operation Support for Exelon Generation.

Exelon said it conducted more than 100 emergency preparedness drills at its six Illinois nuclear facilities in 2014. A spokesperson said Exelon provides emergency training to law enforcement, fire departments, hospitals, health departments, highway departments and local municipalities.

In the case of a radiological emergency, people in the affected area may be asked to go to a local reception center to be monitored and registered, after which they could stay at a specified shelter or with friends or relatives outside the evacuation zone.

Dresden Generating Station was built in the 1960s and is of similar design to the Fukushima Daicchi plant. Although, Exelon said it is continuing to upgrade the Dresden plant to make it as safe as any facility in the country.

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