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Category Archives: Emergency Preparedness and Response

Heeding the Sirens – Despite A Few Mishaps

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

sirenResidents of St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, who live within the 10-mile emergency planning zone for the Waterford 3 nuclear plant, got an unexpected benefit last week when 37 emergency sirens were sounded for a tornado warning.

St. John Parish is similarly protected by 36 sirens. But thousands of other residents who live in surrounding parishes have no sirens.

The reason: The NRC and FEMA work together to make sure the commercial nuclear power plants in this country have sirens around their sites to alert the public in the event of a serious incident. Various federal, state and local agencies also have emergency notification systems they can use to alert the public to a variety of emergencies — including one at a nuclear plant.

“The people of St. Charles Parrish got the benefit of the emergency sirens that surround Waterford 3,” said Ron Perry, the Director of Emergency Preparedness for Homeland Security in St. Charles Parish.

Each nuclear plant is required to exercise its emergency plan with offsite authorities at least once every two years – which includes checking the siren systems. This helps make sure the plant operator, and state and local authorities, can implement their emergency plans if needed. If all goes according to plan, the interface among all these agencies is seamless.

But things do not always go as planned.

Last year, while preparing for an upcoming emergency exercise at the plant, the National Weather Service inadvertently alerted the public around the Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville, Neb., of an unspecified emergency at the plant. The weather service was updating the wording of messages stored in a computer system when someone pushed the wrong button. This sent an advisory to various news media organizations and some members of the public.

The weather service quickly realized what happened and sent a message explaining the error to the media 13 minutes later. But, the mishap received plenty of news coverage.

Unfortunately, this was the second recent incident about emergencies at the Cooper nuclear plant. On July 24, Nebraska Public Power District workers were working on a computer system that controls sirens in Nemaha County when a false alarm was broadcast.

There have been two other similar incidents at Region IV nuclear plants in recent memory:

Last summer, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. workers were upgrading their siren system around Diablo Canyon when they inadvertently activated one at 3:30 in the afternoon. It sounded continuously for 14 minutes before workers were able to deactivate it remotely. It took 10 minutes before county officials sent out an advisory noting the error. Some people vented their anger about all the confusion on the county’s Facebook page, and several local TV stations and the Associated Press carried reports about the incident.

sirenNot a week later, something similar happened in Washington State. During a training class at the state Emergency Operations Center, a staffer inadvertently faxed a partially filled out form for an Alert (the second lowest level of nuclear emergency) at Columbia Generating Station. The fax went to nine different emergency management agencies, including one in Canada. A second fax was quickly sent out correcting the error.

The NRC is primarily concerned with the reliability of sirens. The NRC tracks the performance of licensee alert and notification systems by measuring the number of successful siren tests conducted quarterly at each plant. These types of incidents are embarrassing to all involved and in each instance corrective actions have been taken to minimize the chance of future mishaps.

But the bottom line is that residents in the communities around nuclear power plants need to heed the warning, and trust the emergency alert systems. A few false alarms should not change their response. If you hear a siren, or get a text message on your phone announcing an emergency, please heed the warning.

Plenty of Progress to Report on Fukushima-related Enhancements

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

fukushimaThe NRC’s technical staff, industry executives and a public interest group will brief the Commissioners Thursday on the agency’s efforts to implement what we’ve learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident. The bottom line is the NRC is ahead of schedule on several fronts.

Some of the best news involves U.S. reactors meeting requirements from two of the NRC’s Fukushima-related Orders issued in March 2012. By the end of this spring, almost a quarter of the U.S. fleet will comply with the Mitigation Strategies and Spent Fuel Pool Instrumentation Orders. We expect more than half the fleet will meet those Orders by the end of December, which is a full year before the Orders’ deadline.

Every U.S. reactor will comply with the instrumentation requirements by the December 2016 deadline. Every reactor will also comply by that time with a major Mitigation Strategies requirement – additional, well-protected onsite portable equipment to support key safety measures if an extreme event disables a plant’s installed systems. The U.S. industry has already set up two response centers with even more equipment that can be transported to any U.S. reactor within 24 hours. By the time we say good-bye to 2016, almost every reactor will also have made all modifications needed to use those portable systems. In preparing to meet the deadlines, U.S. reactors have already enhanced their ability to keep the public safe.

About a dozen plants will have made all those modifications except changes closely related to the third Order, which requires Hardened Vents for reactors with designs similar to those at Fukushima. These vents would safely relieve pressure in an emergency and help other systems pump cooling water into the core. All the reactors subject to the Order have completed plans for the first set of vent enhancements or installation of new vents.

The NRC staff finished reviewing these plans earlier this month, ahead of schedule, and issued written evaluations to each plant. The agency is also about ready to issue guidance on how these plants can meet the second part of the Order, which involves an additional vent or other methods to protect the structure surrounding the reactor.

The staff’s presentation will also cover topics including revising the NRC’s rules in these areas, as well as the ongoing effort to re-evaluate flooding hazards for all U.S. nuclear power plants. The NRC’s regional offices will provide their perspective on the overall implementation effort’s progress.

Photo Friday — The NRC Operations Center

fotofridayopcenterVisitors got a rare glimpse of the NRC’s Operation Center last week when tours were offered as part of the annual Regulatory Information Conference. Here, NRC officials show off the Executive Team room, from where an NRC response effort would be managed. Other sections of the center include the Reactor Safety team, the Protective Measures team, the Liaison team and the Public Affairs team, among others. The Op Center is staffed 24/7 by specially trained Headquarters Operations Officers.

Documenting a Sobering Trip to Fukushima

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

Reflections on FukushimaAs we mentioned on the blog last year, senior NRC leaders visited the site of the Fukushima nuclear accident and the surrounding area. Now, the agency has published a report that includes essays on what the team members learned. The report helps ensure current and future NRC staff can benefit from the team’s experience in the future.

The group included managers from the agency’s reactor oversight, research and emergency preparedness programs. They make up most of the agency’s Fukushima Steering Committee, which guides the staff’s implementation of what we learned from the accident. They also take active roles in ensuring U.S. nuclear power plants are prepared to deal with events similar to what happened at Fukushima experienced.

It’s clear from the team members’ essays that the visit affected them deeply. For example, Bill Dean (now director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation) was Administrator of the NRC’s Region I office outside Philadelphia when he took part in the trip. “Most importantly, it enabled us to observe firsthand the far-reaching impacts of a nuclear disaster—not only its physical effects on the facility and the surrounding countryside but also its impact on a nation’s psyche and its people,” Dean writes. “What resonated with each and every one of us is that we cannot allow a Fukushima-like event to occur in the United States.”

Marc Dapas, Adminstrator of the Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, reflects on discussing the accident with plant staff at Fukushima. “Hearing these TEPCO employees describe what they faced and then seeing the actual physical configuration of equipment at the Fukushima sites left an indelible impression on me regarding the importance of being prepared for the unexpected,” Depas writes. “In that context, I considered the safety measures and enhancements that the NRC has required … The key in my view is to ensure that these safety measures are rigorously implemented and maintained.”

The team’s visit covered both the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and the nearby Fukushima Daini plant, which safely withstood the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The visit also covered Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, a nuclear power plant on Japan’s west coast that survived a strong 2007 earthquake.

You can read the essays from Dean and the other trip participants in the report, and you watch a summary video about the trip on the NRC’s YouTube channel.

Potassium Iodide – A Protective Measure Not a Magic Pill

Patricia Milligan
Senior Level Advisor

refresh leafOne of the protective measures that communities around nuclear power plants might use in the case of a radiological emergency is potassium iodide. But potassium iodide, often just called by its chemical symbol, KI, can be confusing for the public — exactly what does it do and when should it be taken?

So here are some facts about KI:

  • It is not an “anti radiation” pill. Potassium iodide is a salt, similar to table salt. It is routinely added to table salt to make it “iodized.” Potassium iodide, if taken within the appropriate time and at the appropriate dosage prevents the thyroid gland from taking in radioactive iodide. This can help to reduce the risk from thyroid disease, including cancer as a result of a severe reactor accident. KI doesn’t protect the thyroid gland from any other radioactive element nor does it protect the thyroid or the whole body from external exposure to radiation. Its use is very limited.
  • KI comes as a tablet, either in 65 mg or 130 mg strengths, and dose is administered according to age and/or weight. It is very important that FDA dosing guidelines be followed when taking or administering KI. Too much stable iodide in the form of KI can be harmful to small children. A tablet can be easily divided, crushed and mixed with liquid to make it easier to swallow for infants, small children and those who have difficulty swallowing.
  • It is important that KI not be taken unless directed by appropriate state or local authorities during the emergency and then, it should be taken in accordance with those directions.
  • KI is NOT the same thing as table salt, and table salt should never be ingested as a substitute.
  • The NRC provides KI – free of charge — to states that have requested it for their population within the 10-mile emergency planning zone of a nuclear power plant. Some states have distributed KI to residents of a plant’s emergency planning zone. In other states, KI is stockpiled and would be distributed if and when it is necessary.
  • In the event of a serious nuclear incident, KI could be used in addition to evacuation or sheltering in place in accordance with directions from responsible state/local officials. For more information, see Consideration of Potassium Iodide in Emergency Planning.

The FDA’s Frequently Asked Questions on KI is a very good resource if you want more information.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous blog posts. This one originally ran in June 2012.

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