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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.