Populations around the facilities have swelled as much as 41/2 times since 1980, a computer-assisted population analysis shows.
But some estimates of evacuation times have not been updated in decades, even as the population has increased more than ever imagined. Emergency plans would direct residents to flee on antiquated, two-lane roads that clog hopelessly at rush hour.
And evacuation zones have remained frozen at a 10-mile radius from each plant since they were set in 1978 -- despite all that has happened since, including the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan.
Meanwhile, the dangers have increased.
More than 90 of the nation's 104 operating reactors have been allowed to run at higher power levels for many years, raising the radiation risk in a major accident.
The AP found serious weaknesses in plans for evacuations around the plants, including emergency drills that do not move people and fail to test different scenarios involving the weather or the time of day.
Some plans are merely on checklists and never have been tested. In drills, responders typically go to command centers and not to their emergency posts. There is no federal requirement for how fast an evacuation must be carried out.
And disaster planners from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have made dubious assumptions about the public response to a major accident. They insist, for example, that people who are not called upon to evacuate will stay put; they're now saying that they might under some circumstances tell residents to hunker down at home even in the 10-mile evacuation zone, and they believe people will do it.
That advice flies in the face of decades of science and policy, millions of dollars in planning and preparations -- and common sense.
The advice also conflicts with what U.S. officials told Americans in Japan in March, when an earthquake and tsunami knocked out power to Fukushima and melted fuel in three of its six nuclear reactors.
Japanese officials ordered those living within 12 miles of the site to leave. The U.S. government's advice to its citizens? If you're within 50 miles, you should evacuate. And NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko insisted that this was nothing more than what would be recommended in a similar situation at home.
In fact, under rules in force for more than 30 years, U.S. communities must by law prepare federally reviewed evacuation plans only for those living within 10 miles of a plant.
Those living within 50 miles are covered only by an "emergency ingestion zone," where states are required to make plans to ban contaminated food and water -- but not evacuate.
After a May 10 tour at the Indian Point nuclear complex, where two reactors operate just 25 miles from New York City's northern border, Jaczko said the 10-mile rule was merely a "planning standard." He said decisions on what to do in the "unlikely event" of an accident would be based on circumstances.
If a 50-mile order were ever issued for Indian Point, it would take in about 17.3 million people -- 6 percent of all Americans, according to an AP population analysis. That would include parts of New Jersey and Connecticut and all of New York City, except for a chunk of Staten Island.
Such a mass exodus would be an "enormous challenge" -- and a historic feat, said Kelly McKinney, New York City's deputy commissioner of preparedness.
"At no time in the history of man," he said, "has anyone tried to move 17 million people in 48 hours."
When reactors were being built, starting in the 1960s, they were generally kept away from population centers. Their remote locations were viewed as a fundamental safety feature.
However, over the decades, millions of newcomers have transformed tranquil woodland or shoreline into buzzing suburbs and bedroom communities.
The AP gathered four sets of population data starting in 1980 through 2010 and used mapping software to calculate growth.
The AP found in its population analysis that over the decades, plant operators and federal regulators have given surprisingly little thought to nearby population growth.
Officials calculate plant safety margins without considering whether an accident would expose 10,000 or 100,000 people to radiation sickness and cancer. And federal regulators have set no limit for how long evacuations might take for given conditions and locations.
The NRC and FEMA acknowledge that radiation releases can happen within a half hour of an accident. Yet a 2004 study for Indian Point estimated evacuation time from the 10-mile zone, in the snow that is common during winters, would take 12 hours.
The federal government has not required population updates for the evacuation zones, though that would change under a proposal expected to be adopted later this year.
The AP analysis also shows:
- Four million people now live within 10 miles of the 65 operating sites. Back in 1980, with 38 nuclear sites, only 1.5 million people lived that close.
- Overall, from 1980 to 2010, the average population in the 10-mile evacuation zones ballooned by 62 percent, from 39,762 to 64,363.
- Populations within the 10-mile radius have more than doubled at 12 of the 65 sites during the same 30-year period.
- The most explosive growth occurred around the two-reactor Saint Lucie complex near Fort Pierce, Fla., where the 10-mile population of 43,332 in 1980 grew 366 percent to 202,010 in 2010.
- About 120 million people, almost 40 percent of all Americans, live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant, according to the AP's analysis of 2010 Census data.
The geography and population around Indian Point have always been a challenge for emergency planners.
Though modest population growth of 32 percent within 10 miles of Indian Point has mirrored the nation's increase as a whole between 1980 and 2010, more people live within this evacuation zone than any other in the country: 268,906, according to the AP analysis.
Population density isn't the only concern. A 2008 Columbia University study discovered a seismic fault line near Indian Point, where another earthquake-prone zone was already known to exist. Yet a steel liner designed to be earthquake-proof has been leaking at the site since 1973.
New York state has fought relicensing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the area can't be evacuated in a severe nuclear accident.
John Curry, Indian Point's emergency director, said he believes people can evacuate from the 10-mile zone. But he acknowledges the depth of public skepticism: "It's very difficult, and I don't know how to make them feel any better."
Indian Point is a special case, but it should be noted that two dozen of the nuclear sites along the East Coast are within 50 miles of New York, Boston, Washington, Baltimore or Richmond, Va.
Today, government regulators verify emergency preparedness of communities essentially by checklists, not by standards for what plans must accomplish. They require that communities show the elements of a good plan, but not that the plan is effective.
Jim Kish, a FEMA administrator who focuses on emergency preparedness, said in an interview that a standard would put communities in an undesirable "planning box."
"They need the flexibility to make decisions on what to evacuate, and when to evacuate, and how to evacuate," he said.
"I think the NRC wants to make sure that the evacuation side of things doesn't make plants have to close, even if the population grows quickly," said Richard Webster, an environmental lawyer who unsuccessfully fought the relicensing petition at the Oyster Creek reactor in Lacey Township, N.J.