Nuclear Reactor Emergency Preparedness
Since 1980, each utility that owns a commercial nuclear power plant
in the United States has been required to have both an onsite and offsite
emergency response plan as a condition of obtaining and maintaining
a license to operate that plant. Onsite emergency response plans are
approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Offsite plans
(which are closely coordinated with the utility's onsite emergency
response plan) are evaluated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA) and provided to the NRC, who must consider the FEMA findings
when issuing or maintaining a license.
Federal law establishes the criterion for determining the adequacy
of offsite planning and preparedness, i.e.: "Plans and preparedness
must be determined to adequately protect the public health and safety
by providing reasonable assurance that appropriate measures can be
taken offsite in the event of a radiological emergency."
Although construction and operation of nuclear power plants are closely
monitored and regulated by the NRC, an accident, though unlikely, is
possible. The potential danger from an accident at a nuclear power
plant is exposure to radiation. This exposure could come from the release
of radioactive material from the plant into the environment, usually
characterized by a plume (cloud-like) formation. The area the radioactive
release may affect is determined by the amount released from the plant,
wind direction and speed and weather conditions (i.e., rain, snow,
etc.) which would quickly drive the radioactive material to the ground,
hence causing increased deposition of radionuclides.
If a release of radiation occurs, the levels of radioactivity will
be monitored by authorities from Federal and State governments, and
the utility, to determine the potential danger in order to protect
What Is Radiation?
Radiation is any form of energy propagated as rays, waves or energetic
particles that travel through the air or a material medium.
Radioactive materials are composed of atoms that are unstable. An
unstable atom gives off its excess energy until it becomes stable.
The energy emitted is radiation. The process by which an atom changes
from an unstable state to a more stable state by emitting radiation
is called radioactive decay or radioactivity.
People receive some natural or background radiation exposure each
day from the sun, radioactive elements in the soil and rocks, household
appliances (like television sets and microwave ovens), and medical
and dental x-rays. Even the human body itself emits radiation. These
levels of natural and background radiation is normal. The average American
receives 360 millirems of radiation each year, 300 from natural sources
and 60 from man-made activities. (A rem is a unit of radiation exposure.)
Radioactive materials--if handled improperly--or radiation accidentally
released into the environment, can be dangerous because of the harmful
effects of certain types of radiation on the body. The longer a person
is exposed to radiation and the closer the person is to the radiation,
the greater the risk.
Although radiation cannot be detected by the senses (sight, smell,
etc.), it is easily detected by scientists with a sophisticated radiation detector that can detect even the smallest levels of radiation.
Preparing For An Emergency
Federal, State and local officials work together to develop site-specific
emergency response plans for nuclear power plant accidents. These plans
are tested through exercises that include protective actions for schools
and nursing homes.
The plans also delineate evacuation routes, reception centers for
those seeking radiological monitoring and location of congregate care
centers for temporary lodging.
State and local governments, with support from the Federal government
and utilities, develop plans that include a plume emergency planning
zone with a radius of 10 miles from the plant, and an ingestion planning
zone within a radius of 50 miles from the plant.
Residents within the 10-mile emergency planning zone are regularly
disseminated emergency information materials (via brochures, the phone
book, calendars, utility bills, etc.). These materials contain educational
information on radiation, instructions for evacuation and sheltering,
special arrangements for the handicapped, contacts for additional information,
etc. Residents should be familiar with these emergency information
Radiological emergency plans call for a prompt Alert and Notification
system. If needed, this prompt Alert and Notification System will be
activated quickly to inform the public of any potential threat from
natural or man-made events. This system uses either sirens, tone alert
radios, route alerting (the "Paul Revere" method), or a combination
to notify the public to tune their radios or television to an Emergency
Alert System (EAS) station.
The EAS stations will provide information and emergency instructions
for the public to follow. If you are alerted, tune to your local EAS
station which includes radio stations, television stations, NOAA weather
radio, and the cable TV system.
Special plans must be made to assist and care for persons who are
medically disabled or handicapped. If you or someone you know lives
within ten miles of a nuclear facility, please notify and register
with your local emergency management agency. Adequate assistance will
be provided during an emergency.
In the most serious case, evacuations will be recommended based on
particular plant conditions rather than waiting for the situation to
deteriorate and an actual release of radionuclides to occur.
Emergency Classification Levels
Preparedness for commercial nuclear power plants includes a system
for notifying the public if a problem occurs at a plant. The emergency
classification level of the problem is defined by these four categories:
of Unusual Event is the least serious of the four levels.
The event poses no threat to you or to plant employees, but emergency
officials are notified. No action by the public is necessary.
Alert is declared when an event has occurred that could reduce the
plant's level of safety, but backup plant systems still work. Emergency
agencies are notified and kept informed, but no action by the public
Site Area Emergency is declared when an event involving major problems
with the plant's safety systems has progressed to the point that a
release of some radioactivity into the air or water is possible, but
is not expected to exceed Environmental Protection Agency Protective
Action Guidelines (PAGs) beyond the site boundary. Thus, no action
by the public is necessary.
General Emergency is the most serious of the four classifications
and is declared when an event at the plant has caused a loss of safety
systems. If such an event occurs, radiation could be released that
would travel beyond the site boundary. State and local authorities
will take action to protect the residents living near the plant. The
alert and notification system will be sounded. People in the affected
areas could be advised to evacuate promptly or, in some situations,
to shelter in place. When the sirens are sounded, you should listen
to your radio, television and tone alert radios for site-specific information
If You Are Alerted
- Remember that hearing a siren or tone alert radio does not mean
you should evacuate. It means you should promptly turn to an EAS
to determine whether it is only a test or an actual emergency.
- Tune to your local radio or television station for information.
The warning siren could mean a nuclear power plant emergency or the
could be used as a warning for tornado, fire, flood, chemical spill,
- Check on your neighbors.
- Do not call 911. Special rumor control
numbers and information will be provided to the public for a nuclear
power plant emergency,
during the EAS message, in the utilities' public information
brochure, or both.
- In a nuclear power plant emergency, you may be advised to go
indoors and, if so, to close all windows, doors, chimney
sources of outside air, and turn off forced air heating and
If You Are Advised to Evacuate the Area
- Stay calm and do not rush
- Listen to emergency information
- Close and lock windows and doors
- Turn off air conditioning, vents, fans, and furnace
- Close fire place dampers
Take a few items with you. Gather personal items you or your family
- Flash light and extra batteries
- Portable, battery operated radio and extra batteries
- First aid kit, emergency kit and manual
- Emergency food and water
- Essential medicines
- Potassium Iodide (Order from Nukepills.com)
- Cash and credit cards
- Use your own transportation or make arrangements to ride with
a neighbor. Public transportation should be available for
those who have not made
arrangements. Keep car windows and air vents closed and
listen to an EAS radio station.
- Follow the evacuation routes
provided. If you need a place to stay, congregate care information
will be provided.
If Advised to remain at Home
- Bring pets inside.
- Close and lock windows and doors
- Turn off air conditioning, vents, fans and furnace
- Go to the basement or other underground area
- Stay inside until authorities
say it is safe
- Take Potassium Iodide if directed to do so by authorized health
When Coming In From Outdoors
- Shower and change clothing and shoes
- Put items worn outdoors in a plastic bag and seal it.
The thyroid gland is vulnerable to the uptake of radioactive iodine.
If a radiological release occurs at a nuclear power plant,
States may decide to provide the public with a stable iodine,
which saturates the thyroid and protects it from the uptake
of radioactive iodine. Such a protective action is at the option
of State, and in
some cases, local government.
Remember your neighbors may require special assistance--infants, elderly
people, and people with disabilities.
If an incident involving an actual or potential radiological release
occurs, consideration is given to the safety of the children. If an
emergency is declared, students in the 10-mile emergency planning zone
will be relocated to designated facilities in a safe area. Usually,
as a precautionary measure, school children are relocated prior to
the evacuation of the general public.
For Farmers and Home Gardeners
If a radiological incident occurs at the nuclear facility, periodic
information concerning the safety of farm and home grown products will
be provided. Information on actions you can take to protect crops and
livestock is available from your agricultural extension agent.
- Normal harvesting and processing may still be possible if time
permits. Unharvested crops are hard to protect.
- Crops already harvested should be stored inside if possible.
- Wash and peel vegetables and fruits before use if they were not
- Provide as much shelter as possible. Take care of milk-producing
- Provide plenty of food and water and make sure shelters are well-ventilated.
Use stored feed and water, when possible.
Three Ways to Minimize Radiation Exposure
There are three factors that minimize radiation exposure to your body:
Time, Distance, and Shielding.
- Time--Most radioactivity loses its strength fairly quickly. Limiting
the time spent near the source of radiation reduces the amount of radiation
exposure you will receive. Following an accident, local authorities
will monitor any release of radiation and determine the level of protective
actions and when the threat has passed.
- Distance--The more distance between you and the
source of the radiation, the less radiation you will receive. In
the most serious nuclear power
plant accident, local officials will likely call for an evacuation,
thereby increasing the distance between you and the radiation.
- Shielding--Like distance, the more heavy, dense
materials between you and the source of the radiation, the better.
This is why local
officials could advise you to remain indoors if an accident occurs.
In some cases, the walls in your home or workplace would be sufficient
shielding to protect you for a short period of time.
What you can do to stay informed
- Attend public information meetings. You may also want to attend
post-exercise meetings that include the media and the public.
- Contact local emergency management officials, who can provide information
about radioactivity, safety precautions, and state, local, industry
and federal plans.
- Ask about the hazards radiation may pose to your family, especially
with respect to young children, pregnant women and the elderly.
- Ask where nuclear power plants are located.
- Learn your community's warning systems.
- Learn emergency plans for schools, day care centers, nursing homes--anywhere
family members might be.
- Be familiar with emergency information materials that are regularly
disseminated to your home (via brochures, the phone book, calendars,
utility bills, etc.) These materials contain educational information
on radiation, instructions for evacuation and sheltering, special
arrangements for the handicapped, contacts for additional information,
Download the Nuclear Plant Emergency Preparedness info as
a PDF file
The NRC's Consideration of Potassium Iodide in Emergency Planning
(information provided by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
Remarks on the need for potassium iodide
made by Commission Chairman Nils Diaz of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ..."use of potassium iodide pills would have significantly reduced the incidence of thyroid cancer [during Chernobyl]".
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has revised a section of its emergency preparedness regulations. The revised rule requires that States* with a population within the 10-mile emergency planning zone (EPZ) of commercial nuclear power plants consider including potassium iodide as a protective measure for the general public to supplement sheltering and evacuation in the unlikely event of a severe nuclear power plant accident.
The final rule amends 10 CFR 50.47(b)(10). The NRC published the rule change in the Federal Register (Volume 66, Number 13, page 5427) on January 19, 2001. The change became effective April 19, 2001.
Along with this rule change, the NRC is providing funding for a supply of potassium iodide for a State that chooses to incorporate potassium iodide for the general public into their emergency plans. After funding the initial supply of potassium iodide, the Commission may consider extending this program to fund replenishment supplies, but has made no commitments in this regard.
Potassium iodide is a salt, similar to table salt. Its chemical symbol is KI. It is routinely added to table salt to make it "iodized." Potassium iodide, if taken within the appropriate time and at the appropriate dosage, blocks the thyroid gland's uptake of radioactive iodine and thus reduces the risk of thyroid cancers and other diseases that might otherwise be caused by thyroid uptake of radioactive iodine that could be dispersed in a severe reactor accident.
The NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are the two Federal agencies responsible for evaluating emergency preparedness at and around nuclear power plants. The NRC is responsible for assessing the adequacy of onsite emergency plans developed by the utility, while FEMA is responsible for assessing the adequacy of offsite emergency planning. The NRC relies on FEMA’s findings in determining that there is reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the event of a radiological emergency.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the definitive medical authority in the United States on the use of potassium iodide.
*When used in this Web site, State includes Native American governments.
Eligibility for Obtaining Potassium Iodide
This rule applies to States and Tribal governments with nuclear power plants within their borders, with populations within the 10-mile EPZ, and local governments designated by States to request potassium iodide funding.
The Commission believes the final rule, together with the Commission's decision to provide funding for the purchase of a State's supply of potassium iodide, strikes a proper balance between encouraging (but not requiring) the offsite authorities to take advantage of the benefits of potassium iodide and acknowledging the offsite authorities' role in such matters. By requiring consideration of the use of potassium iodide, the Commission recognizes the important role of States and local governments in matters of emergency planning.
Process for Obtaining Potassium Iodide
On December 20, 2001, the NRC sent letters to the 34 States with populations within the 10-mile EPZ of nuclear reactors. This letter discusses the NRC program to provide potassium iodide to States and includes, as attachments: the NRC Statement of Consideration in support of the final rule; the FDA final guidelines on use of potassium iodide; and FEMA guidelines on incorporating potassium iodide into emergency response plans, as well as the NRC disclaimer .
The revised Federal Policy on Use of Potassium Iodide was also provided to the States.
The Office of Public Affairs issued a press release on 12/20/01, to announce the NRC's potassium iodide program.
Distribution of Liquid Pediatric KI
On January 12, 2005, the FDA approved the ThyroShield oral solution of 65mg/mL dose for use in children. On November 10, 2005, the NRC, in cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services, sent letters to the States announcing the availability of 51 million doses of ThyroShield liquid pediatric KI for States with populations within the 10 mile EPZ.
Regulations and Guidance
The NRC final rule on the Consideration of Potassium Iodide in Emergency Plans was published in the Federal Register on January 19, 2001. This rule became effective April 19, 2001. The FDA final guidance on Potassium Iodide as a Thyroid Blocking Agent in Radiation Emergencies was published in December 2001. The Federal Emergency Management Agency published the revised Federal Policy on the Use of Potassium Iodide in January 2002.
Current Status on KI Distribution
Twenty states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Vermont, Delaware, Florida, Alabama, Arizona, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Virginia, Mississippi, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Tennessee) have requested and/or received potassium iodide tablets.
Role of Reactor Licensees
The Commission notes that this rule will introduce another element in the context of emergency planning requirements for which licensees are ultimately responsible. Licensees have the obligation to confirm that offsite authorities have considered the use of potassium iodide as a supplemental protective action for the general public. It will also require the licensees to use this information in developing Protective Action Recommendations for offsite agencies.
Distribution of KI Within 20-Mile Radius of Nuclear Power Plants
Section 127 of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (the Bioterrorism Act ) requires State and local governments through the national KI stockpile to distribute KI tablets to population within 20 miles of a nuclear power plant. The Bioterrorism Act also directed the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study the expanded distribution of potassium iodide and report back to the President on the best distribution methods to accomplish such an expanded distribution. The NAS published this study in January 2004.
On August 29, 2005, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) published draft guidelines for State, local, and tribal governments, for the expanded distribution, stockpiling, and utilization of KI in the event of a radioactive iodine release from a commercial nuclear power plant incident. On September 2, 2005, DHHS issued a correction to add deadline for receiving public comments. The NRC provided comments to the draft guidelines on November 1, 2005.