Washington (CNN) – Most Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant aren't prepared for a nuclear emergency and don't think the police, hospitals and other emergency services in their community are prepared either, according to a new national poll.
But a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Friday indicates that only four in ten believe it is likely that an accident or natural disaster at the nuclear plant near them will put their family in immediate danger, and only one in seven think that is very likely to happen.
Graphic: Are you prepared?
Full poll results [pdf]
As a result, only 18 percent of people who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant have a disaster supplies kit ready, and six in ten are not familiar with the evacuation route they would need to use if the worst happened.
Radiation: What you need to know
"Staying put may also not be a good idea – nearly six in ten believe that the police, hospitals and first responders in their area are not prepared for a nuclear emergency," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
A 1982 study from Sandia National Laboratories, commissioned for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the consequences of a nuclear meltdown in the United States would be catastrophic. The disaster could cause 50,000 fatalities and $314 billion in property damage. In today's money, that's $720 billion.
Putting a number on a hypothetical scenario such as a full nuclear meltdown in the United States obviously leaves much room for guesswork. The NRC noted the age of the 1982 Sandia study, suggesting it's no longer accurate. The agency is working on a new study, said NRC spokesman Scott Burnell, but that study focuses on health impacts, not property damage.
Winfred Colbert, an energy attorney, said that in the only major disaster at a U.S. nuclear plant, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, the containment structure generally worked. Not much radiation is thought to have leaked into the atmosphere. The $70 million or so in evacuation, cleanup and other associated costs were easily paid for by the industry's $12.6 billion fund.
But with so many major U.S. cities so close to nuclear power plants – New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia are all with a 50-mile fallout zone – it's hard to imagine a major disaster wouldn't result in damage far exceeding $12 billion.
The CNN Poll comes two weeks after a catastrophic earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami that severely damaged a nuclear power plant, resulting in a possible meltdown of some of the reactors.
On Friday, authorities in Japan raised the prospect of a likely breach in the all-important containment vessel of the No. 3 reactor at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a potentially ominous development in the race to prevent a large-scale release of radiation.
Traces of radioactive iodine tied to the plant have been detected as far away as Sweden and the United States. Authorities have said those levels are far below what's considered harmful to humans.
Nonetheless, the situation in Japan has caused Americans to reflect on a "what if?" scenario.
Just two months ago, California residents living near a controversial nuclear power plant grilled nuclear regulators over the reactor's safety at a public hearing. At issue was the 2008 discovery of a previously unknown earthquake fault located less than a half mile off shore from the plant.
Officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the owner of the plant, PG&E, told residents the plant could withstand the magnitude of quake that's likely to be triggered by the Shoreline Fault. A quake along the Shoreline Fault is predicted to reach magnitude 6.5, according to PG&E. The earthquake that hit Japan was a magnitude 9.0.
With PG&E wanting to extend the license, the 26-year-old Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo is likely to face more scrutiny in the aftermath of the nuclear crisis in Japan. The additional questions over the plant's safety come at a critical time for the U.S. nuclear industry.
The NRC is reviewing applications for 19 new reactors across the country. Most of the new plants are slated for sites where reactors already exist. None are slated for California which has a moratorium on new nuclear power plants.
President Obama has proposed expanding nuclear power in the U.S. as a green energy source. In fact, the president touted Japan's push toward nuclear energy at a town hall meeting in 2009. The White House is showing no signs of backing away from nuclear energy now.
The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey was conducted March 18-20, with 1,012 people questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
– CNN's Jim Acosta, Evan Glass, Ed Hornick, Paul Steinhauser and CNNMoney.com's Steve Hargreaves contributed to this report.