Mapping What Would Happen If A Fukushima-Like Disaster Hit Your Local Nuclear Reactor

A year after the disaster in Japan, American fears about our own reactors have dissipated. Should they have? See if you would be safe if the unthinkable happened here.

Last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan rendered a fairly large swath of land uninhabitable, left scores of people homeless, generated nuclear fallout fears well beyond Japan, and scared countries into reconsidering their nuclear policies. We’re all a little more aware of the dangers of nuclear power, but do you really know what would happen if a Fukushima-like disaster hit the nuclear plant closest to you?

The NRDC released a map this week showing what the fallout would be like at each of the 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S.—and what the risk factors are that could trigger a disaster. As you can see here, the majority (but by no means all) of the reactors in the U.S. are concentrated on the East Coast.

One of the most controversial sites is the Indian Point nuclear plant—a plant that would force the evacuation of New York City in the event of a major disaster. Within a 10-mile evacuation zone (the smaller circle), Indian Point would force out 317,000 people. In a 50-mile evacuation zone (the larger circle), a staggering 17,639,000 people would have to disperse. That’s virtually impossible on short—or even long—notice.

The red zone indicates the threshold for radiation sickness, dark orange is the maximum recommended radiation dose for first responders, light orange is where evacuation is recommended, and yellow is where sheltering is recommended.

What if a disaster happened on the other side of the country? The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, located near Los Angeles, has 126,000 people in its 10-mile evacuation zone and 8,841,000 people in the 50-mile zone. It’s not quite as bad as Indian Point in terms of evacuation, but consider: Southern California is prone to earthquakes, and every once in awhile there’s a big one. San Onofre officials say that the plant is prepared for a big quake (a 7.0 on the Richter scale), but an 8.9 megaquake like the one in Japan would be too much for it to handle.

Nuclear plants can be affected by plenty of disasters other than tsunamis and earthquakes. In 2011, five nuclear power plants had emergency shutdowns—one because of an earthquake, one from flooding, two from tornados, and one from a hurricane. It’s not a stretch to imagine that shutdowns will increase as climate change increases the number of extreme weather disasters in the future.

There are other risk factors as well: 71 reactors in the U.S. are approved to run for 60 years (they have a 40-year designed lifespan), and 90% of plants in the U.S. have had their operating power increased beyond their original design.

Fukushima-sized disasters are rare, and if every nuclear plant in the U.S. went offline today, we would be in a tough spot—one that would probably be resolved by burning more coal in addition to renewables (see Germany’s example). But we shouldn’t become complacent about nuclear safety just because the Fukushima disaster happened somewhere else.

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  • stevenstarr

    You say that the Fukushima disaster made "a fairly large swath of land uninhabitable" and that it "left scores of people homeless".  The permanent exclusion zone around Fukushima is 12 miles, that is quite a swath. 

    Furthermore, 80,000 were evacuated from Fukushima, and a couple hundred thousand more from the surrounding countryside.  You are off by four orders of magnitude when you say "scores" of people were made homeless. They also lost virtually everything they owned.

  • nella

    Read About a Mountain and then have a conversation about the ethics and extreme scope and longevity of nuclear energy. Nuclear IS bad. I'm looking at this from a high level perspective (besides the fact that I personally don't want to be anywhere near radiation as I've experienced cancer firsthand, so whatever the specific range, count me out of that risk). 

    Humans have never before created anything of this scope and longevity - not even human language will last as long as the radioactive scraps nuclear plants will leave behind. We're talking 10,000 years. 10,000 years?!?!  How will we dispose of it safely? Rather, how will we "package" the radioactive waste and remains of decrepit reactors? How will we educate future civilizations about what we've created and left behind when we are not here? Why have we misplaced our knowledge and why are we pursuing something that has the potential to be so so detrimental to the human race and generations of earth beings to come? Why not invest this skill, money, energy into something clean AND renewable, not to mention less deadly and toxic? Us mere humans have not really thought through the complexities of radioactivity and what this means for the earth.  This is a very complex issue and here on a random message board is not nearly the place to discuss. But my main point is that I'd encourage people to become educated on the true  complexities and long-term implications of this energy source. It is a much bigger monster, much more complex than anything we've discussed below. It has the long (not to mention short term) potential to be quite detrimental to the human race. Personally, I don't want to be anywhere near this, nor do I believe ethically that this is the legacy our generation should leave behind. 

  • Quek

    So what does nuclear waste look like and how must it be packaged? Questions you can't answer. As for 10,000 years, why that number? What is the significance of 10,000 years? What is the radiation level after 100 years or even 300 years? As far as educating future generations, what are you thinking? What did our ancestors educate us about? Do you see a decline in civilization and education so that you must preserve a primative society? In 100 years they will giggle at the things we worried about as we do when we read 100 year old articles. What about the long term effects of the dangerous chemicals used to manufacture solar cells, they have no half lifes, they never change.

  • Craig Spears

    Chernobyl was a completely different monster altogether.  This was a nuclear plant built in soviet era Ukraine.  It's goal was efficiency, pure and simple.  There were few safety checks, it was horribly maintained, and it's tech was outdated when it was installed.  What happened was inevitable.  Not so with the modern plants used in much of today's world (and in fact it has been this way for decades before Chernobyl) are among the safest forms of power producers - using BOTH manual and automatic safety checks and accident prevention.  On top of that most plants are built specifically to contain any kind of unforeseeable accident within itself.  Take for example, Three Mile Island.  Everyone immediately thinks of that as a disaster.  In fact it was proof of the effectiveness of the safety measures put in place.  There were no deaths and the health effects were very low level. 

    Nella, you make a couple of fallacies.  Queek never said that radiation or nuclear material weren't toxic.  The toxicity isn't the issue.  The issue is keeping away from unsafe human and environmental contact.  Like just about every toxic thing we use.

    I think there is this image of "nuclear is bad" that's been spread
    throughout culture.  People hear the word images jump to mind of
    Chernobyl, bombs, 50s sci-fi monsters, and nuclear winter.  Even with
    the Fukushima accident - it happened in the midst of a tsunami.  The
    images of destruction mix with talk of nuclear accidents and a negative
    image is unintentionally re-enforced.  If the issue were looked at reasonably, without the knee-jerk paranoia, I think more enviornmentally minded people could see it as the most viable and relatively (as opposed to coal or oil) clean energies.

  • Quek

    Nella- No, those kind of accidents are not possible. If you think they are possible, how? Not abstract but the calculations. What kind of accident would require a 50 mile evacuation, what would the radiation at the 10 mile radius be and how would it get that high? These are real questions that you can't answer. Radiation, reactor fuel, the fission reaction are all known. They are measurable and have physical characteristics. We have over 60 years of experience with this. I am saying there is no accident that could cause it. Even Chernobyl only has a 19 mile exclusion zone which has actually turned into an adventure vacation zone. No disaster exists within the realm of physics that would produce a 50 mile zone, the 19 mile zone for Chernobyl is over kill.

  • Quek

    "Last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan rendered a fairly large swath of land uninhabitable"
    That is just not true. Secondly when you talk about the 50 mile evacuation zone, what on earth could happen that would cause a 50 mile evacuation? I operated nuclear power plants for 20 years. There are no disasters that would warrant a 50 mile evacuation. Please don't bother to bring up Chernobyl, that kind of accident is not physically possible in our nuclear plants. The design just doesn't allow for that type of accident.

  • Quek

    Sushiman, no. Three mile island was not caused by a single faulty valve. It started with a faulty relief valve but that was not the only issue. Secondly, it was contained and the damage was to the core. Currently there is another core in that reactor and it is operating.

    Nella. I am very educated in nuclear power. I spent 21 years working in nuclear power. Chernobyl happened because they manipulated the safety systems for 3 days to establish the conditions necessary for the accident. It is like driving down a side walk in New York, drunk at 100 mph and determining that driving is unsafe. I read most of the comments by the anti-nuclear crowd and realize most are really anti-science, they just won't admit it.

  • sushiman

    In Three mile island, the meltdown was caused by ONE faulty valve. it was a minor valve too. So to say that such a disaster like Chernobyl is impossible is untrue itself. There is no possible way to make a 100% safe nuclear power plant. There will all ways be a risk from something as minor as one small, insignificant valve.

  • nella

    Quek - That kind of accident is VERY possible. We are human, after all, not infallible gods. Maybe you should educate yourself a bit more about the overall effects of nuclear energy. There is a great book called About a Mountain that give you a critical analysis of nuclear power, and it's also an enjoyable read:  http://www.amazon.com/About-Mo...
    I don't know about you, but dying from radiation contamination is just not the way I want to go. That stuff is toxic and deadly, and you're crazy if you think otherwise. 

  • Mattias Svederberg

    Chernobyl was a over-critibility accident. This kind of accident is not physically possible with light water reactors. Yes, its actually by the laws of physics impossible. Anyone saying something other just don't have a clue.

    The type of accident in Fukushima is not possible in most other reactors around the earth, including just about every single US nuclear reactor.

    There is two reasons. 1: A lot of US reactors have passive or semi passive cooling, they will still cool the core if the plant loses all the power. Rendering reactor harmless with no power at all. All new reactors from the mid 90-tys is built this way, and a lot of older ones have been retrofitted. 2: All (to my knowledge) US reactors and all reactors in EU is fitted with radiation filter. This does two things. A: The reduce the radiation relished in case of a accident by about factor 1000. This virtually remove any kind of evacuation zone. B: They reduce the pressure inside the reactor in case of a emergency,