MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. -- Two nuclear power plants bracket Charlotte's sprawling suburbs - McGuire Nuclear Station on Lake Norman and Catawba Station on Lake Wylie.
And Duke Energy has plans for a third nuke station just west of York County, South Carolina.
But after the Japanese nuclear explosion, the U.S. is taking a second look at its own nuclear emergency plans. Which leads to a simple question with no easy answer: are we prepared?
Picture I-26 westbound from Charleston, S.C. on September 14, 1999. Hurricane Floyd churned in the Atlantic. Traffic ground to a halt. A woman, 9 months pregnant, stared at the last drops of the last jug of water. A group of Citadel cadets pushed a car without gas.
Now imagine Brawley School Road - the only road in and out of a peninsula across Lake Norman from the McGuire nuclear plant - with familiar orange barrels marking the parts under construction.
Or Sam Furr Road, NC 73, exit 25 off I-77, backed up on a good day.
"There'd be pandemonium," said Troy Jones, operator of Nukepills.com, a Mooresville company that supplies potassium iodide pills to block radioactive iodide. Jones knows something about panic following a nuclear disaster. When the recent Japanese nuclear accident hit the news, "My Blackberry starts going crazy," he said.
Most of the thousands of orders for nukepills came not from Japan but from California which faced no danger. "People calling, panicking, crying, sending me e-mails pleading," said Jones.
Jones thinks the Carolinas evacuation plans don't take into account the level of panic in a nuclear emergency. "They should do more than what they do now," he said.
Take, for example, schools. They drill for fires. Drill for tornadoes. Even drill for lock downs.
But for a nuclear disaster? "It's all on paper," Jones says. Carolina students almost never practice a nuclear drill. "They can draw up all the plans they want but if they don't test them using the public it's going to be a disaster," Jones said.
Schools within the ten-mile "emergency preparedness zone" have written plans. They train teachers. Nurses. Principals. And they keep potassium iodide for staff and students locked in a "crisis box."
CMS Security Director Kevin Earp is confident an evacuation would go smoothly. "We deal with this every day. Load the kids on the buses. Communicate. Account for the kids. And go. So it's something we could handle," said Earp.
Extensive emergency plans reviewed by the I-Team call for schools to load the bus with potassium iodide - known as K-I - if students have not taken the nukepills before they evacuate the schools.
"The plan is to get the kids out before the release occurs therefore K-I becomes a non-issue," said Wayne Broom, Emergency Management Director for Mecklenburg County.
But if traffic grinds to a halt a radioactive cloud could move faster than the buses.
"If they wait until they get on the bus, get through traffic and get to their evacuation school it could very well be too late," said Jones. "They need to take it before they leave their classroom."
But the most recent FEMA evaluation of McGuire Nuclear Station emergency excercise on August 19, 2009 recommends that emergency workers take the potassium iodide pills early acknowledging the "roads may be congested."
But schools plan to pack up the nukepills and load them on the lead bus in a convoy of buses to be escorted by law enforcement if necessary. "It'd be something we'd just have to deal with," said Earp.
Duke Energy hires a consultant to estimate evacuation times for McGuire and Catawba Nuclear Stations. The most recent evacuation time estimates for McGuire predict everyone within a ten-mile radius of the plant could get out within six hours at most. The projection takes into account severe weather and large gatherings at places like Davidson Stadium, the Metorlina Expo and the Renaissance Fair simultaneously.
But the report is based on 2004 traffic counts. In a real emergency, the best laid plans would run headlong into real traffic.