The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Tuesday that the 10-mile emergency evacuation zone around U.S. nuclear plants is a "planning standard" that could change during an accident or attack.
Chairman Gregory Jaczko said his agency recommended that Americans move 50 miles away from the Japanese plants that were failing after an earthquake in March because of "the potential for a more significant event to develop."
In the "highly unlikely" event of an accident at a U.S. plant, he said, decisions would be based "on what information we can get."
"If we needed to take action beyond 10 miles, that's certainly what we would recommend," he said.
Critics of the Indian Point nuclear power plants — which Jaczko toured on Tuesday — say the NRC's 50-mile advisory in Japan proved that a larger area is endangered by the plants than the NRC has acknowledged. They also say it would be impossible to evacuate the millions of people within 50 miles of Indian Point, which includes most of New York City, so the plants' application for new licenses should be denied.
Among those critics are Democratic Reps. Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel, who represent nearby districts and accompanied Jaczko on the tour. Both repeated as they stood with Jaczko outside the plant that they believe Indian Point should be closed.
Republican Rep. Nan Hayworth, who district is home to Indian Point, also recently visited the plants and does not believe they should be closed, said spokesman Nathaniel Sillin.
Lowey and Engel have introduced a bill that would require that existing plants seeking new licenses be held to the same standards as a new plant, so that population density and the threat of terrorism could be considered. Those issues are not part of the relicensing process.
"If this plant were built today, it would not be sited here," Engel said.
Jaczko would not comment on Indian Point's relicensing, which would allow its two active reactors to run until 2033 and 2035. A third reactor was mothballed in the 1970s.
But he said he expects there will be some updates in NRC regulations as the result of the Japan crisis, which was sparked by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out critical cooling systems at nuclear plants. Some 80,000 people living within 12 miles were evacuated.
Jaczko said a task force has been appointed at the NRC "to look at the challenges and issues that we face coming out of Japan. ... I expect that we'll learn some good lessons and I expect that there'll be some changes to our requirements as a result of that."
While Jaczko was touring the nuclear plants, several anti-Indian Point demonstrators joined reporters waiting for the chairman's news conference to begin in an Indian Point parking lot. They carried signs saying "No Fukushima in Westchester" and "Evacuation Impossible." When they resisted a security guard's request that they leave, state troopers were called in to escort them away.