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How Far Do You Live From A Nuclear Power Plant?

There’s a good chance you’re a little too close for comfort if there was an accident: More than 120 million Americans are within 50 miles of a reactor. Here’s a new tool that maps your risk.

How Far Do You Live From A Nuclear Power Plant?
[Image: Bohunice nuclear power plant. Bohunice, Czech Republic via Flickr user IAEA Imagebank]

If you live in the U.S., there’s a fairly decent chance you live near a nuclear power plant: More than 120 million Americans are within 50 miles of a reactor. A handy new interactive map from Esri calculates your exact distance from the nearest plants.

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How bad is it to have a nuclear plant as a neighbor? The chances of a meltdown may not be quite as small as was once believed: After the 2011 disaster in Fukushima prompted some reevaluating, at least one study found that serious accidents at reactors may be 200 times more likely than past estimates led people to believe. Based on the current number of reactors in the world, a major disaster like Fukushima might happen once every 10 or 20 years.

The same year as Fukushima, five nuclear power plants in the U.S. lost primary power thanks to earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding. On this map, extra layers show where fault lines run and where earthquakes have happened in the past to give some sense of the risk. But natural disasters aren’t the only challenge.

There’s also the issue of age. Some nuclear power plants have been approved to keep running for 60 years even when they were only built for 40. Other plants have permission to run at higher power levels than what was specified in the original design. And then there’s the challenge of human error. Emergency shutdowns happen pretty regularly; over the last decade, a power plant in southern Washington State has shut down 23 times.

If something happens to go wrong at a nuclear reactor, anyone living in a 10-mile radius of the plant may have to evacuate. This map also shows a 50-mile evacuation zone, the safe distance that the U.S. government recommended to Americans who were near Fukushima. Wind can also change how far a radioactive plume travels–in a similar map, the environmental group NRDC calculated where wind would have carried radiation if an accident had happened in the U.S. the same day it did in Japan.

Even if nothing catastrophic happens, there’s also the chance that nuclear plants can have smaller leaks–the majority of reactors have leaked tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that can contaminate drinking water and, at high enough concentrations, cause cancer and genetic defects.

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As the map shows, most plants are fairly close to major cities so they can efficiently deliver power. So in some regions, it’s pretty hard to avoid living near one. And hey, at least they’re cleaner than a coal power plant–at least day-to-day–and they’re definitely much less of a threat to the climate. But if you have one nearby, maybe you should add a fallout plan to your disaster preparedness to-do list.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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