Nuclear Emergency Planning: Did You Know?

** On March 11, 2011 a major nuclear accident took place in Fukushima, Japan. 146,000 people were told to evacuate in a 20-kilometre radius around the plant. 270,00 people remain away from their homes in northeast Japan since the tsunami/earthquake/nuclear disaster. A study carried out by the Japanese Parliament concluded in 2012 that the cause of the nuclear accident was “man-made” and cited collusion between the nuclear regulator and TEPCO. In April 2013, Toshimitsu Homma of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency stated at an international conference on Emergency Management held in Ottawa that the most important lesson of Fukushima was that before the accident, “There was an implicit assumption that such a severe accident could not happen and thus insufficient attention was paid to such an accident by authorities.”

The Nuclear Emergency Scene in Durham Region

1. A very large number of agencies are involved in nuclear emergency planning. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and the (federal) Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) have responsibilities for on-site emergency response, while off-site emergency planning is the responsibility of the Province of Ontario. Within Durham Region, the Durham Emergency Management Office (DEMO) is responsible for implementing provincial plans. With the dauntingly large number of federal, provincial, regional and municipal agencies involved, there is a very real risk of bureaucratic mix-ups in the event of a major accident. Such mix-ups occurred both in Ukraine following the Chernobyl accident, and in Japan following the Fukushima accident.

2. Sufficiently detailed plans for a serious nuclear emergency do not currently exist. Plans currently in place under the PNERP (Provincial Nuclear Emergency Response Plan), the TNERP (Toronto Nuclear Emergency Response Plan) & the DRNERP (Durham Region NERP) are for a smaller accident, not for a Chernobyl or Fukushima-style major accident or very large radioactive release. The emergency exercise carried out at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in May 2014 involved more than 50 agencies – but no members of the public – and was not planned around the possibility of a major accident.

3. The Ontario and federal governments have failed to review & revise the Province’s nuclear emergency plans to address accidents involving large radiation releases since the Fukushima nuclear disaster took place in March 2011.

4. Most citizens are ill-prepared to respond to a serious nuclear emergency – even those who live close to one of Durham’s two large nuclear generating stations. Current measures requiring personal emergency preparedness and/or possible evacuation are neither well-detailed nor widely understood ... nor widely communicated. For example, most citizens are not aware that they are responsible for making their own evacuation arrangements in the event of an emergency (even if they don’t own a vehicle), what means of transportation to use if they don’t own a car, or how to effect family reunifications. (See article here.)

5. “Sheltering in place” (i.e., staying where you are when you are notified of a nuclear accident) may be an early instruction, but in the case of an actual release of radionuclides from a nuclear power plant, most ordinary houses will not provide adequate protection from all exposures, again stressing the need for effective evacuation planning. Evacuation plans and routes and locations of evacuation centres are not familiar or known to people in Durham Region or the Greater Toronto Area in general, who might have to evacuate quickly in the event of a serious nuclear accident at Pickering or Darlington.

6. The Province of Ontario determines the “zones” of notification in which public alerting after an accident & the distribution of potassium iodide pills (see below), must be carried out.  These zones are both arbitrary and inadequate, and in no way reflect the distances over which radiation may in actuality travel, or where dangerous hot particles may ultimately land.

7. Potassium iodide pills (known as KI pills) must be taken as soon as possible after a major radioactive release in order to prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine, possibly later resulting in thyroid cancer. This is an important action to reduce the risk of damage to the thyroid gland, but is only effective if taken at the right time (i.e., just before or at the very beginning of a radioactive release). It must be noted that KI does not prevent the absorption of a host of other radioactive isotopes that could be released to the air and unwittingly breathed in, and so, as already outlined, effective evacuation is also key.

8. Regulations about the distribution of KI pills are currently under federal review in Canada. In some countries (e.g. France and Switzerland) they are pre-distributed to all households within 10-50 km of a nuclear plant. The CNSC is recommending that regulations around KI pills be changed, and that KI be pre-distributed to all citizens within the 10-kilometre zone of any major nuclear facility. Ontario’s provincial government (which is in charge of Ontario’s off-site nuclear emergency plans) does not appear to be in support of this initiative. (See recent Toronto Star article here.)

9. On June 17th & 25th [2014] , Durham Nuclear Awareness made presentations & asked members of Durham’s Regional Council to advocate on behalf of its citizens for world-class nuclear emergency plans, and to ask the provincial government to conduct transparent public consultations with Durham Region and its citizens on revisions to the province’s nuclear emergency plans. (The text of our June 25th powerpoint presentation can be found here.)