The Challenges of Evacuations in the Face of Disaster

After the series of disasters that struck Japan in the wake of the massive earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011, the most prominent being the subsequent tsunami, disaster planners around the world learned valuable lessons from what happened there and are today looking to apply what was learned to future natural disasters and their side effects. No one predicted just how bad the 2011 tsunami in Japan would be, as it ended up destroying important infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, but most importantly it also destroyed buildings, such as the three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Even though the nuclear disaster in Japan was slow in developing — over a 14-hour period — it was the expected meltdowns that eventually caused a massive evacuation of the area. This proved to be the right course of action since, later, Unit 1 suffered a damaging explosion, exposing nuclear fuel and other radioactive materials to the environment, according to a www.scientificamerican.com article.

If something like this happened in the U.S., could citizens evacuate appropriately? According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), more than 180 million Americans live within 50 miles of nuclear power plants, with at least one reactor in operation. That’s a lot of people, but if recent numbers are to be believed, it is feasible. On average, an evacuation occurs every three weeks within the U.S., according to a 2005 study by Sandia National Laboratories.

Normally, depending on the severity of the nuclear disaster, an immediate 10-mile radius would be evacuated around the plant. Those in this radius should be prepared to evacuate in the event of a nuclear disaster. If the situation warranted it, then that evacuation zone would be extended out to 50 miles. Again, that would depend on the amount of radiation released, with an advisory to remain indoors with the windows closed and to keep all farm animals under cover being the least restrictive course of action. The evacuation could also be affected by something as simple as the direction of the wind when the disaster happened.

Another concern is getting people to leave their homes. When the nuclear power plant at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown, officials were hard pressed to get the locals to leave.

For more information about lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, visit: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mass-evacuations-in-nuclear-meltdowns