Investigation into nuclear power plants: evacuation zones

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PHOENIX – In an explosive report by the Associated Press, investigators discovered what they’re calling “serious weaknesses in evacuation plans” surrounding America’s nuclear power plants. 

According to the report, many of the rules imposed by the Federal Government haven’t been updated since 1980.

John Padilla is the Emergency Services Planner for Maricopa County. It’s his job to ensure everyone who lives near the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant know what to do in an emergency.  It’s an important role considering, “A lot of people don't know it's there. We have the largest nuclear power plant in the country and a lot of people don't know its 50 miles down the road.”

Among the criticisms in the Associated Press investigation was that the federal government doesn’t require nuclear power plants to conduct time sensitive evacuations.

But according to Padilla, his team has annual evacuation drills. "We conduct evacuation time estimates every year so we know roughly how long it will take to get everybody out."

Following the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in March, the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Americans within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate.

Some wondered how the U.S. could make that recommendation considering evacuation zones around the U.S. nuclear plants cover a 10-mile radius.

Padilla says, "Once we get out past the 10 miles we start to see the radiation levels start to drop and come down to the ground so we're more concerned with the hot spots, where it spotted out, once the plume goes by."

Congress has since introduced the Nuclear Power Plant Safety Act of 2011 which among many things will expand emergency evacuation zones in the U.S.

Even if it passes, Padilla says that doesn’t mean everyone living in the 50 mile radius of the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant would be subject to evacuation. "We'll have to identify the area that has to be evacuated so there will be separate spots it won't be the entire 360 circumference of 50 miles. It will just be the spots where the hazards exist."