Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Fukushima’s Effect on Nuclear Preparedness in the U.S.

Japan’s disaster provided a real-world example for emergency managers and the nuclear industry to compare their plans and procedures against.

Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona
Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona

Three years ago, the tsunami triggered by an earthquake in Japan caused a catastrophic failure at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, leading to the release of significant amounts of radioactive materials beginning on March 12, 2011. It was the largest nuclear power plant incident to date — called “an extremely severe nuclear accident” by Japan’s investigative committee — and one that has changed planning and preparedness efforts worldwide.

“Fukushima woke up the world nuclear industry, not just the U.S.,” Allison M. Macfarlane, chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told The New York Times.

As with all disasters, it provided a real-world example for emergency managers and the nuclear industry to compare their plans and procedures against. Arizona, for instance, is home to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, which was named the United States’ largest power producer for the 22nd consecutive year. Located about 55 miles west of downtown Phoenix, Palo Verde adds to the list of possible emergency scenarios that Arizona responders may one day meet. And to prepare for that possibility, planning and relationships have been built and enhanced for more than 30 years.

“We’re fortunate in the state of Arizona that we have a very close-knit community that does this planning for the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, and that’s been the case since the plans were first developed in the early 1980s,” said Bill Wolfe, Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program branch coordinator for the Arizona Division of Emergency Management.

Learning from past experiences, both in the U.S. and internationally, has helped hone Arizona’s plans. Wolfe said the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine in 1986 and the impact on the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Florida during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 provided opportunities for the state to examine its plans and procedures. And the Fukushima disaster did the same.

“We don’t have many opportunities in this business to experiment with real radioactive releases, so we like to take advantage of what incidents do unfortunately occur,” Wolfe said. “We track the response activities from an offsite perspective, and we look at the documents that are generated as part of that.”

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During the Fukushima response, there were issues with messaging, decision-making and public involvement early on, all of which were confirmed in Japan’s after-action report (PDF), published by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. The report included important insights into the emergency response and provided information for Arizona officials — and emergency managers worldwide — to use to compare how they would respond to a real-world incident and what initiatives are already in place.

The commission’s report provided key recommendations for Japan, including:

  • creating a permanent committee to oversee the regulators;
  • reforming the crisis management system and establishing a clear chain of command in emergency situations; and
  • establishing a system to deal with long-term public health effects.

“We felt we had aggressively proceeded very well with a robust program,” Wolfe said, “and we didn’t see many things that were fundamental issues with our program.” He added that the report reinforced the process of knowing the planning zones and how they might be impacted, as well as helping to determine the validity of the 10-mile and 50-mile radiuses around Palo Verde that the state uses for planning.

In addition to planning, relationships are key in Arizona. Wolfe said there’s frequent communication between the state radiation representatives, local emergency managers and people from the power plant. Prior to working for the state Emergency Management Division, he was responsible for Palo Verde’s offsite program for 19 years and said that constant communication was in place then and allows for open conversations. “The continuing dialog allows us to share information as it happens, ask questions and to have an environment where we feel free to ask each other anything.”

That ongoing dialog also extends to the public. Messaging around a nuclear event isn’t done once a year; it must be constant and real-world examples provide an important time for public outreach. Residents also should be updated anytime they may be impacted by an event.

Emergency managers in the Pacific Northwest, where geologists warn that a similar scenario involving an earthquake and tsunami could strike at any time, are also using lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster. “Oregon recently wrote guidelines to help coastal communities annex land for emergency housing. And both states [Oregon and Washington] have new, 50-year plans to upgrade schools, bridges and utilities — though neither has committed the money,” reported The Seattle Times. Read more of Emergency Management’s coverage of lessons from Japan in Recovery Still Isn't in Sight 3 Years after Japan's Tsunami.

Additional planning tools are also available online. Below is Esri’s nuclear proximity map, which shows nuclear plants in the U.S. with 50-mile rings around them. Users also can enter an address or city name to see how close they are to the five nearest plants.

Elaine Pittman  |  Managing Editor

Managing Editor Elaine Pittman has nearly a decade of experience in writing and editing, having started her career with The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. Elaine joined Emergency Management in 2008, and she can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.

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