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Published: Sunday, 7/3/2011

Safety route

The crippling of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March rekindled concerns about the safety of nuclear power generation worldwide. Recent reports on conditions at the 104 commercial reactors in the United States have sparked welcome attention from Congress.

The Associated Press reported last month that the number of Americans who live within 10 miles of a nuclear plant has risen by 62 percent over the past 30 years. That raises urgent questions about the adequacy of evacuation planning. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), seeks a congressional investigation to determine whether response plans are keeping pace with population growth.

Other senators want a review of safety standards and federal oversight related to problems with aging nuclear plants that the AP articles identified. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and industry trade groups have challenged some of the AP's findings.

As Mr. Casey noted in a letter to the Government Accountability Office, many nuclear plants were intentionally built in rural areas, away from concentrated population and economic centers. He says "new demographic realities require a re-examination of our security protocols."

Population near 12 U.S. nuclear sites has doubled, the AP reports. Among them: the Perry reactor in Ohio, which sits near Lake Erie. Population growth near nuclear plants in New Jersey and New York has been even greater, raising questions about evacuation plans for New York City.

None of the recent calls for safety reviews should be considered an indictment of nuclear power generation. But you need not be an opponent of the technology to think it's a good idea to make sure evacuation procedures and other precautionary measures associated with nuclear plants are up to date.

Even with ample planning, the situation in Japan unraveled quickly, as the effects of a tsunami overwhelmed the reactors in Fukushima.

The United States needs more information about how citizens, government agencies, and plant operators should react if something goes wrong at a nuclear reactor. Only good can come of further review in Washington.

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