The word’s dependence on nuclear power generation is increasing every year, and the possibility of an accident or attack triggering a nuclear power plant disaster is a growing concern. But while the possibility is undeniable, the outlook is far from bleak; not only is nuclear power historically very safe, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your family in the event of a nuclear power plant accident.
Increasing Use of Nuclear Energy Worldwide
There’s no doubt that nuclear power is a well-established and rapidly growing part of modern life. Nuclear power generation currently supplies about 14% of the electricity used worldwide; as of 2016, a total of 30 countries were operating 450 nuclear reactors for electricity generation, and 60 new nuclear plants were under construction. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nuclear power use is increasing by 2.3% per year.
France leads the world in nuclear power consumption, depending on reactors for about 75% of its electric power, and nine other European nations get more than a third of their electricity from nuclear power. North America is close behind, with the US generating around 20% of its power through a total of 99 nuclear reactors in 30 states, and Canada relies on 19 reactors for approximately 16% of its electricity.
Nuclear power actually has an excellent safety record, with only three major accidents in over 50 years. In fact, no member of the public has been injured or killed in the entire 50-year history of commercial nuclear power in the U.S. But nuclear safety is closely linked with security, and the possibility of terrorism has joined inherent safety risks like aging equipment and operator error in fueling fears of a nuclear power plant event that could put the public at risk.
The Anatomy of a Meltdown: Understanding the Possibilities
Nuclear power plants generate electricity by converting water to steam, using the heat generated by splitting uranium or plutonium atoms in a process called nuclear fission. Though nuclear fission doesn’t directly produce radiation, it does result in the creation of unstable radioactive particles which create radiation as they decay. The power generator as a whole is referred to as a nuclear reactor, and the part of the reactor in which the fission takes place is a closed environment called the core.
Complex cooling and containment systems are used to protect the core and its contents from the heat generated by the fission process. The worst-case nuclear accident scenario is often referred to as a meltdown, which can be defined as an overheating accident in which the reactor core is damaged and radiation is released into the environment.
While even a partial meltdown is extremely serious, it’s important to separate fact from speculation and myth; fears that a meltdown can turn a power plant into a massive nuclear bomb are scientifically baseless. According to the Center For Nuclear Science And Technology Information, nuclear weapons detonate because they contain particular configurations of specific materials that are not present in nuclear reactors.
It’s also important to understand that a meltdown doesn’t necessarily equate with a massive and catastrophic radiation release. Ukraine’s 1986 Chernobyl disaster, in which a total of 30 people died from acute radiation poisoning, was the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power in which radiation-related fatalities occurred. The other two serious nuclear power plant accidents – Three Mile Island in the US and Fukushima Daichii in Japan – involved partial meltdowns of one or more reactors, but in both cases, the radiation escape was minimized, and neither accident resulted in any deaths or cases of radiation poisoning.
However, the fact remains that any radiation escape is critical, and radiation exposure is the number one danger posed to the public by a nuclear crisis. Taking the following steps can help you and your family stay safe in the event of a nuclear power plant disaster.
Number One Priority: Follow Emergency Alert Instructions
The US government’s emergency response plans for a nuclear accident include two separate planning zones, one for a 10-mile radius of the reactor where people could potentially be harmed by direct radiation exposure and one for a 50-mile radius, where food crops and water supplies could be contaminated by radiation.
In addition, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has established four categories of nuclear emergencies, in increasing severity: Unusual Event, Alert, Site Area Emergency, and General Emergency. The only level at which radiation is expected to present a threat to the public is General Emergency, but if you live within 10 miles of the plant you are considered to be in the Emergency Planning Zone and may be alerted or instructed to evacuate at an earlier stage.
In the US, about a third of the population lives within 50 miles of a reactor, and about 6 million people live within a 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone. If you’re unsure of your distance from the nearest reactor, click here for an evacuation zone finder provided by the Physicians For Social Responsibility.
Alerts may include sirens, a radio tone, an automated call from a public safety warning system, or an in-person alert from emergency responders. If you receive an alert or warning, tune your radio or television to your designated Emergency Alert Station and wait for instructions.
Important: Follow Emergency Alert instructions. If you’re instructed to remain in place, stay where you are and don’t attempt evacuation. Depending on the nature of the emergency and a variety of environmental factors such as wind speed and direction, evacuation could be much more dangerous than staying in place. If you are instructed to evacuate, do so immediately. If authorities specify a certain route or tell you to travel a certain distance from your current location, follow instructions without deviation.
Advance Preparation For Evacuation
Unless you’re otherwise instructed by authorities, putting as much distance as possible between yourself and the site of the emergency may be your best option. If you live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, it’s wise to make advance arrangements that will allow you to leave the area quickly, with a minimum of confusion.
Establish your own evacuation plan, complete with a preferred escape route that will take you out of the affected area as quickly as possible, and at least one alternate route that you can use if your preferred route is closed, congested, or otherwise inaccessible.
If you have friends or family at a location at least 50 miles from your home, make advance arrangements with them to serve as your emergency destination and plan your route accordingly. If you don’t know anyone who can provide emergency shelter, determine well in advance what your evacuation destination will be. If you have pets, do some advance research to find pet-friendly lodging at your destination city. Indecision and confusion can create dangerous delays.
See also: How to Make a Bug Out Plan
Keep an evacuation kit, also known as a “bug out bag,” packed and ready to go. Prepare your evacuation necessities in a travel bag or backpack and keep it in an out-of-the-way location where it won’t be “plundered” for everyday needs but can easily be grabbed if an emergency occurs. Include cash, basic first aid supplies, a few days’ worth of essential medicines for family members and pets, flashlights, a transistor radio, batteries, and a zip-lock bag containing copies of your important papers (driver’s license, Social Security cards, proof of insurance, bank account and credit card numbers, and a list of personal contacts). Refer to our bug out bag packing list to help you pack.
Pack minimally, but efficiently. Include enough basic clothing for a couple of days, all prescription and over-the-counter medicines regularly taken by anyone in the family, and simple hygiene necessities. Pack a bag, box, or crate with bottles of water, snacks, and pet food, and stow it in your car.
Secure your home and let someone know you’re leaving. Lock windows and doors and shut off utilities if possible. If you’ve arranged for friends or family to serve as your emergency destination, contact them and let them know you’re on your way. If you don’t have a pre-set emergency destination, contact someone who lives anywhere outside the affected area and tell them you’re evacuating and the location to which you plan to travel. When you reach your destination, contact them again and let them know you arrived.
Keep your vehicle sealed. Travel with windows up and vents closed.
Advance Preparation For Remaining In Place
If you live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant, you may want to make advance preparations for a shelter-in-place order following a nuclear accident. Though shelter-in-place orders are usually brief, measured in hours rather than days or weeks, every situation is different and keeping a store of some basic supplies on hand can help you and your family get through an emergency.
Store enough water for two weeks. Keeping an ample supply of stored water on hand is an important part of any emergency preparations, but it can be particularly important in the case of a nuclear accident because a radiation release could potentially contaminate water sources long after a shelter-in-place order is lifted. The US Department of Homeland Security advises families to store a total of at least one gallon per person, per day. Water doesn’t spoil or go bad, so if it has been properly stored, it can be used indefinitely. However, Homeland Security advises that stored water supplies be replaced every 6 to 12 months for best taste and maximum safety.
If you buy bottled water, keep it tightly capped, mark it with the date purchased, and store it in a cool, dark place.
If you choose to bottle water for storage yourself, it’s important to follow a few basic safety rules. Store water only in glass or food-grade plastic containers that have been cleaned and sanitized; two-liter soda bottles are a good choice. Wash containers and lids with hot soapy water and rinse well, then sanitize by rinsing containers and lids with a solution of 1 tablespoon chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Leave the containers wet with the sanitizing solution for two minutes, then rinse them again with water. Fill the containers with tap water, make sure all containers are tightly lidded, mark them with the date, and store in a cool, dark place.
Lay In Food Supplies. Stock an emergency pantry that will keep your family going for at least two weeks. A major nuclear accident could potentially disrupt access to electricity and other utilities, so concentrate on simple non-perishable canned or boxed foods that require little or no preparation. Avoid salty foods or snacks, which can increase thirst and put an additional burden on water supplies. Don’t forget to keep two weeks’ worth of canned food for pets, and store dry pet food in sealable glass or plastic containers.
Make provisions for light, heat, cooking, and communication. If electric service is interrupted, you’ll need alternate sources of light and heat. Flashlights and battery-powered lamps are the best lighting options, though it’s wise to keep matches and several candles with your emergency supplies. A sterno stove is a cheap, compact, and convenient choice for emergency cooking, and either a kerosene or propane-powered heater can keep a single room tolerably warm. Be sure to store extra batteries for lighting devices and fuel for stoves and heaters.
Maintaining communications is one of the biggest challenges in an emergency that involves the loss of electricity, internet connectivity, and phone service. A battery-operated radio can an invaluable source of official information, so make sure you have at least one (and plenty of batteries) stored with your emergency supplies, or better yet, get a hand-crank emergency radio such as the Eton FRX2. Cell phones will operate as long as a carrier signal is available, but only if they’re charged, so keep at least one portable charging device plugged in and at the ready.
What To Do After An Emergency Happens
The first and most important thing to do in case of a nuclear plant emergency is to seek out and follow official instructions. If evacuation is ordered, leave without delay, but if you’re advised to remain in place, do so. Though your gut instinct may be to flee, evacuation isn’t always the best option for safety following a nuclear accident; wind and weather conditions can significantly increase the danger presented by a release of radiation, as can the amount of time that has elapsed since the emergency began.
If you get a shelter-in-place order or are simply not ordered to evacuate, there are several steps to take to maximize your safety at home during a nuclear emergency.
Get all pets and people inside the house immediately. Go to a basement area or windowless interior room if possible.
Lock windows and doors and turn off all sources of air intake, including air conditioning, heaters, and furnaces. Close air vents and fireplace dampers.
Seal your shelter room. Use duct tape and heavy plastic to seal cracks and spaces around doors and windows and to close off vents.
Keep lines of communication open. Tune your TV or radio to local Emergency Alert System stations, and use your telephone only if absolutely necessary.
If there’s any chance that you’ve been exposed to radiation, act quickly. If you’ve received decontamination instructions, follow them immediately. If you believe you’ve been exposed to hazardous radiation but haven’t received decontamination instructions, take a thorough shower and change clothes and shoes. Put the clothes and shoes you were wearing when exposed into a plastic bag, seal it, and put it well outside of your home. If pets were outside and could have been exposed to radiation, shampoo and rinse them thoroughly.
Seek a public shelter if necessary. If you’ve been told to evacuate but don’t have transportation, or if you haven’t been ordered to evacuate but feel it’s unsafe to remain in your home, you may be able to get to a public shelter. If you’re located in the United States, the US Department of Homeland Security says you can text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345).
The Bottom Line: Stay Alert, Follow Instructions, and Keep Calm
The enormous potential of a nuclear power plant makes even the thought of a reactor accident terrifying, but in fact the evidence over more than 50 years of nuclear power shows that it is a safe and reliable means of generating electricity; the risk of accidents is already low and is declining as technology improves and safety measures and regulations expand.
Most importantly, your own actions and attitude play an enormous role in seeing you and your family safely through a nuclear emergency. Staying calm and alert, having an advance plan, and seeking out and following emergency instructions can be your best safeguard.