Is it safe to live near a nuclear plant? What are the dangers? How close is too close? Can you somehow make your home "nuke-proof?" Will you need special insurance? And what might a plant accident do to your home's value?

These are top-of-mind questions for many homeowners who either live in a nuclear neighborhood or are thinking of buying or building near one of America's 104 nuclear reactors.

The March 11 explosions and radiation leaks at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility, like the 1986 Chernobyl and 1979 Three Mile Island accidents before them, introduced a whole new generation of homeowners to the complexities of living with nuclear neighbors.

We put these questions and more to a trio of experts: William Miller, professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri's Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute; Tristan Roberts, editorial director of BuildingGreen.com; and Alexandra "Sascha" von Meier, professor of environmental studies and planning at Sonoma State University.

Judging by their strong responses, this hot topic isn't likely to cool down anytime soon.

Financial Upside: Better Standard of Living

Let's start with the obvious question: Is it safe to live near a nuclear plant?

"Absolutely; study after study has shown this," says Miller. "The bizarre fact is, cancer rates and risks in general are lower around plants. That has nothing to do with the plant itself, but instead with the higher standard of living of the people who live and work there. They have good-paying jobs, they take care of themselves, they have the money to pay for medical care."

Von Meier begs to differ. "(Nuclear power) is obviously very dangerous, very susceptible to mistakes, and I don't believe it's necessary because I am more optimistic that renewable resources can supply a very, very high percentage of our needs."

But von Meier admits her concerns have as much to do with who's operating the plant as it does with nuclear power itself.

"I wouldn't buy a house next to a random reactor because I don't know the training and the culture of the people who operate it, which is not generally accessible," she says. "I think this issue of transparency has been a major problem."

Potential Health Costs

A nuclear accident nearby poses two main health threats: direct radiation from the damaged reactor and ingestion, typically by breathing, of a radioactive isotope such as iodine-131 or cesium-137 that has become airborne from an explosion.

Ingestion is the greater health threat because of its potential to concentrate radiation within the body. Iodine-131 typically leads to cancer of the thyroid, especially in children. Cesium-137 can contribute to a wide variety of cancers.

Direct radiation, by contrast, dissipates rapidly the farther away you are from the source. "Distance is obviously a very large player here, as is the direction of the wind," says Miller.

So how close is too close?

"A 10-mile or so radius is more than sufficient," Miller says. "There is always the statistical chance of cancer in the future, but in the Japanese situation, with the doses we've seen, even the workers at the plant might have a one-half (percent) to 1% increased cancer risk over their lifetimes. A mile away, that radiation level is way, way down by comparison."

Extra Work to Protect Home

Here's the 411 on disaster-proofing your home:

Despite a plethora of products that purport to block radiation, including metallic paints and lead-lined drywall, direct radiation will blow right through them just as it does through the pressurized metal cabins of commercial aircraft.

You can, however, inexpensively block 95% of the more dangerous airborne particles by using plastic sheeting and duct tape to create airtight barriers over all door, window and chimney openings, according to ABC's Richard Besser.

What you really need is a strategy to make your home "passively survivable" for an extended stay inside your makeshift oversized "Glad bag."

Roberts offers these suggestions:

  • Photovoltaic solar panels: Two panels may be enough to power your gas furnace, refrigerator, water pump or laptop indefinitely.
  • Rainwater harvesting: Roof runoff stored in a closed rain barrel or buried cistern comes in handy when the town water is shut off or contaminated.
  • Orientation: When building in warm climates, orient your home on an east-west axis with windows on northern and southern exposures to reduce sun exposure. In colder climates, use a north-south axis with windows facing south for solar heat gain.

Do You Have to Get Nuclear Insurance?

You won't find nuclear coverage in your standard homeowners insurance policy. In fact, it specifically excludes nuclear hazard liability to avoid sharing this largely uncharted risk.

But the main reason you can't purchase nuclear insurance is Americans already have it, thanks to a nuclear industry contingency fund mandated by Congress in 1957.

In the same year that President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program launched the nation's first nuclear plant at Shippingport, Pa., Congress enacted the Price-Anderson Act. It requires all nuclear plant operators to maintain an insurance fund, currently at about $12.9 billion, to pay liability claims for personal injury, sickness, disease and death, property damage and loss, and living expenses for displaced victims resulting from a commercial nuclear plant accident.

To date, that fund has paid out $71 million in claims resulting from the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.

"The nuclear program really completely hinges on many billions of dollars of federal money being spent to shore it up," says von Meier. "It is not viable in the private sector alone, starting with liability insurance; you can't get it, we have to underwrite it as a society."

Are Nuclear Plants a Buyer Turnoff?

The Atomic Energy Commission once envisioned that America would have 1,000 nuclear reactors online by 2000. Public protests and safety concerns following Three Mile Island trimmed those hopes dramatically. Today, America boasts 104 reactors at 64 commercial nuclear facilities, some near major cities such as Boston, Los Angeles and New York City.

Do good nukes make good neighbors? It seems so, judging by the 2010 U.S. Census, which found that the number of residents living within 10 miles of a nuclear plant increased by 17% over the last decade. If you expand the radius to 50 miles, one in three Americans (116 million) now lives within the nuclear neighborhood.

Most plants are located on bodies of water away from large populations, two natural draws for many homebuyers.

Miller says it's ironic that suburban sprawl is closing in on America's once-remote nuclear plants.

"Ours are remotely sited; some of us in the industry think maybe to excess," he says. "In Europe, some plants are located fairly near towns where (nuclear) waste heat is actually used for heating and industrial purposes."

Then again, nuclear housing markets are always just one plant accident away from a meltdown.