Is NRC’s Jaczko Positioning the Administration to Ratchet US Nuclear Emergency Planning Zones from 10 to 50 miles?

The Japanese government had established a 20 km (12.8 mile) evaluation zone around the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, a recommendation supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency.  The US NRC had several experts on the ground to assist the Japanese government.  The Americans had access to the same information that was available to Japanese authorities and the IAEA.  Then on Thursday March 17, 2011 an unusual thing happened.

NRC Chairman Jaczko came straight from a meeting in the White House and told members of Congress that Americans in Japan should evacuate to a distance of 50 miles from the reactors.  His comments sparked alarm across the globe because he also stated the Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4 fuel storage pool was dry, the uncovered used nuclear fuel was overheating, and they could expect large releases of airborne radioactive contamination.

Jaczko’s statement included this:

Now, in addition to the three reactors that were operating at the time of the incident, a fourth reactor is also right now under concern.  This reactor was shut down at the time of the earthquake.  What we believe at this time is that there has been a hydrogen explosion in this unit due to an uncovering of the fuel in the fuel pool. We believe that secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent-fuel pool.  And we believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures.

Jaczko’s statements were factually wrong and the NRC’s recommendation to evaluate 50 miles were not based on any credible assessment of the risks.   The Japanese government and the IAEA disputed Jaczko’s recommendation.  In the days since, the media and anti-nuclear groups have jumped on the 50 mile bandwagon, questioning the basis for the current 10 mile emergency planning zone (EPZ) criteria in US regulations.  Jaczko has yet to issue a retraction or apologize for his remarks.

  1. Did Chairman Jaczko jump to conclusions and simply misspeak? OR
  2. Was he intentionally setting the stage to ratchet US nuclear plants into a much larger emergency planning zone?

Anti-nuclear groups have long been arguing for expanding nuclear emergency planning zones from the current 10 miles to 50 miles.  They know this would create an almost impossible financial burden on nuclear plants, and would foster political pressure to shut them down.

Issuing overly conservative evaluation orders can have serious consequences.  The unnecessary movement of large numbers of people carries significant risks: traffic accidents and panic alone can kill people.  Jaczko should have issued a retraction as soon as the basis for his recommendations were proven to be wrong.  Instead he has been silent.

This is not the behavior we expect of an appointed official in which we place public trust.

Author: John Wheeler

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