Quick: where's the nearest nuclear power plant?
This is probably not a question you're asked all that often. But it's one worth knowing the answer to for a couple of reasons: the basic value in knowing where some of your electricity comes from and, in the extremely unlikely event of a meltdown, the practical knowledge of whether you'll have to evacuate your home.
Currently, if a radiological emergency occurs, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommends that anyone living within 10 miles of a plant to tune in to their local radio or television Emergency Alert System and heed the instructions from state or local officials. The commission also suggests that anyone within 50 miles to take action to protect local food and water supplies. Recently, some have have argued that the evacuation zone should be extended this far as well—and in 2011, after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, authorities from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that Americans living within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate.
This is where a new nuclear proximity interactive map by Esri (one of their many cool disaster response maps) comes in handy. Scroll around to see the 65 active nuclear plants scattered across the U.S. surrounded by 10-mile (red) and 50-mile (yellow) radiuses, or plug in your address to get the exact distance you are from the nearest few plants. (Smithsonian.com's office, in case you're wondering, is 44.18 miles from the Calvert Cliffs plant in southern Maryland.) You can also turn on layers that show the locations of historic earthquakes and fault lines.
Seeing all the plants laid out on a national map also conveys an interesting point. Because most electricity use is in cities, a nuclear plant (unlike wind or solar) can be built pretty much anywhere, and transmitting electricity over great distances causes some of the energy to be lost to friction, most of the plants are logically located near large urban areas. For better or worse, of the country's biggest 20 metro areas by population, at least part of 14 of them lies within 50 miles of a nuclear plant. Overall, about a third of Americans live within one of the 50-mile radiuses. If you're reading this article somewhere in the U.S., there's a good chance that a nuclear plant is relatively closeby.
Editors note: This story was edited to clarify the NRC's emergency preparedness plan for those who live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant.