U.S. NRC Blog

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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.

10 responses to “Heeding the Sirens – Despite A Few Mishaps

  1. Moderator May 11, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    We ask that any future comments relate to the topic of the blog post or they will be moved to Open Forum. Thank you.

    Moderator

  2. CaptD May 7, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    San Onofre (CA) had many sirens “events” go off but nobody told residents why, but of course the Operator SCE was never fined, yet another slap on the wrist by the NRC…

  3. Nikohl Vandel May 7, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    OK, i get being hooked into and expanding the emergency response system, what i don’t get is that if there is an event causing that system to go off creates an incident uncontainable like #fuqafukushima what does it matter.

    I guess #yolo mentalities like that just do not need to be supported in Louisiana where #Katrina’s grace is why you may even write that story. Not anymore. Not for energy.

    #REALnuclearWasteConfidence means wew DO NOT CONTINUE less than COMPLETE SECURITY when we don’t have too.

    #ItsOK2beSmarter
    #TSLA

    • Dan Williamson May 7, 2015 at 9:27 pm

      I think your universal translator is broken.

      • Nikohl Vandel May 9, 2015 at 10:43 am

        Lol, yeah, i don’t speak deviantease. Its a problem on this planet. I have angelic realms that run interference when people are too corrupt or stupid to understand. Most people made a C or worse in reading comprehension in the United States. Mostly because they fail to think for themselves, experts say. Its understandable. I try to be patient.

  4. joy cash May 7, 2015 at 10:50 am

    This article brings to mind why all nuclear plants need to be shut down & spent fuel transferred to unpopulated areas. “Human error” coupled w/ nature’s growing unpredictably is simply a recipe for nuclear disasters. Chernobyl & Fukushima are enough for our species & shared world to endure.

  5. Troy Martel May 7, 2015 at 10:38 am

    Spurious action of protective systems and alarms cause people to lose confidence and begin to ignore those systems. It is unfortunate that nuclear power plants have the capacity to contaminate large areas, which require evacuation and distribution of iodine tablets. Protective systems and alarms must be perfect.

  6. James Greenidge May 7, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Funny how SO few oil/gas/chemical installations have ANY such sirens or horns or local alert systems in place despite their infamous track records having far more injurious incidents than nuclear plants ever had. Sure smacks of prejudice to me.

    • Dan Williamson May 7, 2015 at 11:58 am

      The prejudice is the faulty notion that 100.00% perfection in ANY complex system is achievable. So when failures of any kind do occur, that (coupled with the inability – or unwillingness – to understand the vanishingly small risk of significant consequences) becomes the rationale to scrap the entire industry.

      BTW, I see that another of Mr. Buffett’s oil trains is on fire this morning. There’s some significant consequences for ya’.

    • Laura (@LauraStraightUp) May 8, 2015 at 11:30 pm

      No doubt, and the fact that nuclear energy production creates massive thermal output into our environment so subject to warming, cooling, changing, or whatever the hidden agenda of the week calls for.. Climate change global hot head hypocrisy at it’s best.

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