Numerous nuclear plants across the country have evacuation plans that have not been updated in decades and do little to account for damage to roads and bridges that can be caused by earthquakes or other severe weather events, according to a new Associated Press investigation.
As plants have grown older, the once-rural areas around them have grown more crowded, the populations increasing as much as 400 percent, making them much more difficult to evacuate.
The population around the flood-threatened Ft. Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska has swelled 41 percent in the last 30 years.
"The evacuation plans have been updated, but in my view they have not taken into account the issues associated with this uncontrolled population growth very close to these plants," said Ed Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Although America's top nuclear official recommended that Japan evacuate a 50-mile radius after the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, the United States only requires evacuation inside a 10-mile radius of an accident.
Evacuating a 50-mile radius around New York's Indian Point plant would mean moving more than 17 million people, 6 percent of the U.S. population.
The fact is that as nuclear plants age they may already pose a risk without a serious accident. Another AP investigation found radioactive tritium has leaked from three-quarters of U.S. nuclear power sites. The number and severity of the leaks have increased even as federal regulators extend the plants' licenses.
Tom and Judy Zimmer had just moved into their home near Braidwood nuclear plant outside Chicago in 2005 when plant owners showed up on their door to tell them they had a radioactive tritium leak.
"I didn't know what tritium was, but I knew if it was radioactive it isn't good for you," Tom Zimmer said. "It kind of destroyed our whole life."