We do a lot of talking about electrical power in the prepping and survival community: specifically, how we can survive without it. But surviving without electrical power isn’t the only way that we should be concerned about it. Electrical power production can be dangerous in and of itself, especially when we talk about things like nuclear power.
There are plenty of statistics around, which show just how safe nuclear power is. But there are also some rather spectacular examples of accidents involving nuclear power plants.
While nuclear power is safe, when all those safety measures fail, the results can be catastrophic. All anyone has to do is mention nuclear power and people instantly remember the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Those aren’t the only reactor accidents, by the way; but they three of the top five.
We currently have 60 commercially operated nuclear power plants, containing a total of 98 nuclear reactors. Surprisingly, the state of Illinois has the most, with a total of 11 operating reactors. A total of 12 states generate more than 30% of their power through the use of nuclear power.
In addition to these, there are another 39 smaller nuclear reactors which are not used for the generation of electrical power, but are housed in research facilities. These reactors produce radioisotopes for nuclear medicine, as well as being used in training and as laboratory tools. Some are working on developing new technologies, seeking to make nuclear power even safer for use.
Our fleet of nuclear power plants is aging though, with the average age being 39 years. That’s fairly serious, when we consider that they have been designed to last a mere 50 years. The oldest of those plants entered service in 1969, putting it over that 50 year threshold. That’s only one of four which have already surpassed their expected service life.
On the other end of that scale, there is only one nuclear power plant which is less than 20 years old. Thanks to environmental activists, it is extremely difficult to open nuclear power plants, even though it is one of the cleanest forms of energy production there is.
How Much Risk is There?
In today’s day and age, the big question isn’t so much how many reactors we have or whether they are inherently safe, but whether anyone could make them unsafe. Stories abound about hackers trying to break into our electrical grid, including our nuclear power plant. There’s even one story about some foreign power hacking into one of our nuclear power plants and taking control of it for several hours.
The potential damage that could be caused by someone taking control of one of our reactors is definitely something to be concerned about. Can you imagine the panic that would occur if one of the recent ransomware attacks that have hit our country were to have been aimed against one of our nuclear power plants? Or how about if the pilots who flew those airliners into the twin towers on 9-11 had aimed for a nuclear power plant instead?
The truth of the matter is, with people who are willing to do anything, including putting their own lives on the table as gambling chips, our nuclear power plants are vulnerable to attack. While I have been assured that the computer controls to those plants are not tied into the internet or any other network, making them supposedly impervious to hacking, all it would take is one unscrupulous worker accepting a bribe to make them vulnerable. There are also many ways in which a direct attack on one of the plants could be catastrophic.
Our big question isn’t whether something could happen to a nuclear power plant, but how bad it would be and whether or not we should be concerned. That will vary for all of us, depending on how close we live to one of those plants. Even the 19 states which don’t have a nuclear power plant could be at risk of fallout, if a plant were to be destroyed upwind of them.
Nuclear Emergency Planning Zones
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has established two different types of emergency planning zones (EPZs) around every nuclear reactor in the country. The closer in zone is called the “plume exposure pathway EPZ” and extends about 10 miles in every direction around a nuclear plant.
The big concern in this case, is the inhalation of airborne radioactive contamination. The farther zone is called the “ingestion pathway EPZ” and is concerned with food and liquids which might become contaminated and then ingested. This zone extends roughly 50 miles around the power plant.
As the power plants are constantly monitored, with extensive redundancy in the monitoring methods used, the NRC expects to be able to issue warnings and alerts should any unexpected radiation escape from one of our nuclear power plants.
But there is ample reason to question these EPZs, based upon past nuclear accidents. Japanese officials weren’t able to determine a proper safe zone from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. As a compromise, they set a distance of just 18 miles, with the first 12 miles being a mandatory evacuation zone and the following 6 miles being voluntary.
Many organizations, including the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) came out saying that 18 miles wasn’t far enough. Several countries, including the United States, recommended that citizens visiting Japan keep a minimum of 50 miles away.
Yet radiation from that accident spread from four of the six reactors, contaminating the Pacific Ocean. That radiation, as well as airborne radiation carried by air currents reached the western coast of the United States, killing a considerable amount of marine life.
What About Explosion?
One of the big questions about nuclear power plants is whether or not they can explode. This has been a popular theme in science fiction and even a few movies; but in reality, a nuclear power plant cannot produce a fission explosion. The nuclear fuel is too dilute to form the critical mass necessary to produce a chain reaction, leading to an explosion. So at least we’re all safe from that.
While we don’t have to worry about a nuclear explosion from the reactors, that doesn’t mean any of us are safe. The Fukushima accident was created by an earthquake that caused a tsunami. Other similar disasters could cause similar results at literally any other nuclear reactor, anywhere in the world.
Are You in Danger?
Whether or not you are in danger from a nuclear power accident depends mostly on your proximity to a nuclear power plant. Fortunately, this information is public and easy to find. All you have to do is search online for nuclear power plants and you can find the information, either in map form or in list form.
Check the location of nuclear power plants in your state and in neighboring states if you live near the state’s border. If you are outside the 50 mile zone, about the only way that you could be affected by a nuclear power plant catastrophe, would be if someone blew the plant up with a large enough bomb to cast nuclear material into the atmosphere, creating fallout. Other than that, you’re safe.
If you live within the danger zone, I’d recommend having an emergency evacuation plan in place; one which will take you far enough away to keep your family safe. That plan has to be one that you can put into place quickly, so that you can beat everyone else who might be evacuating as well. Don’t stop for anything, including driving back home to pick up your bug out bag. This is the type of disaster where it’s best to take action first, and then do the analysis later.
That means you have to have a supply cache somewhere outside the EPZ, so that you will have basic supplies to use if you find yourself forced to evacuate. I’d recommend establishing it at or near your survival retreat, either at the home of a friend or in a rented storage unit.
What About Fallout?
If someone actually manages to blow up one of our nuclear power plants, sending nuclear material into the upper atmosphere, then the abovementioned EPZs won’t really matter all that much. They weren’t done with that scenario in mind. Nevertheless, if you live within the 6 miles zone, I’d still bug out.
The bigger, more difficult question will be about fallout. Where fallout occurs, how long it lasts and how far it extends all depend on the weather. The National Weather Service will be monitoring that, in conjunction with other government agencies. You can be sure that the government will be providing constantly updated information about that.
Evacuation isn’t necessarily required due to fallout, although it isn’t a bad idea. But you can do just as good sheltering in place, in your basement (assuming you have a basement). The fine particles of radioactive material that are fallout won’t penetrate below the ground. So as long as you are in your basement, you’re fairly well protected.
Depending on the situation, you might have to shelter in place for as long as 30 days. That means having enough supplies and other essentials stored in your basement, for your family to survive that long.
You’ll also need such things as bathroom facilities and a means to cook food. Essentially, you’ll need to plan on living in your basement, as if it were a bunker.