NRC’s Preparations for Hurricane Season Enable Quick Response – If Necessary

Roger Hannah
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region II

The hurricane season officially begins next week, and this year hurricane experts are predicting 12-14 named storms in the Atlantic with at least a couple of major hurricanes. After two years of seeing a below average number of storms, some of those experts are saying this could be an unpredictable and potentially dangerous season.

2016 Tropical Weather Outlook MayAs they do prior to every hurricane season, NRC staff members are preparing for the challenge and will be ready for any storms that make landfall and threaten the facilities we regulate. NRC preparations begin with training for all those staff members who might have to respond during a storm, testing of communications systems, and inspections to confirm that nuclear power plants in hurricane-prone areas have completed their extensive hurricane preparations.

The annual hurricane season runs until Nov. 30, and the NRC staff routinely tracks each storm from formation until dissipation, constantly evaluating whether it could pose a threat to U.S. nuclear plants and other NRC-licensed facilities.

If a storm approaches the mainland, the NRC regional offices provide regular updates to the NRC’s Headquarters Operations Center in Rockville, Md. Depending on the location of the storm, the Region II office in Atlanta, the Region I office outside Philadelphia, or the Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, may be involved. These briefings include information about staffing of the regional Incident Response Centers, assignment of additional staff to supplement the NRC resident inspectors at the potentially affected plants, and actions underway to ensure continuous communications with NRC-licensed facilities along the projected path of the storm.

Before a storm even forms, the NRC’s regional offices make sure that appropriate equipment, including satellite phones, are available and operational.

When a storm does form and its projected path shows possible impact on a coastline, one or more of the regional offices begins continuous hurricane tracking using the resources of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center, other federal agencies and commercial weather forecasting services.

Within 48 hours of expected hurricane force winds, NRC officials are dispatched to the State Emergency Operations Centers in the affected states. Additional NRC personnel are identified and placed “on-call” to respond if needed for any storm-induced emergency.

About 12 hours before the arrival of hurricane force winds, the agency will begin receiving continuous status updates from all of the NRC-licensed facilities in the hurricane’s path. Communications links will also be established with state emergency response officials and other federal response agencies.

During a storm’s landfall, NRC staff members maintain close contact with the plant staff and with NRC resident inspectors on site. If normal communications are lost, emergency communications systems are used.

Following any hurricane, the NRC inspectors help assess the extent of any damage to the facility and, if necessary, respond to any storm-induced problems. The agency also works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine when evacuation routes are passable and offsite emergency response organizations will be sufficiently recovered from the hurricane response to resume normal activities.

We all hope 2016’s hurricane season has little or no effect on NRC-regulated facilities and all other areas where people live, but in any case, our advance preparation allows the NRC staff to respond quickly and effectively if a hurricane or major storm does strike.

Throwback Tuesday — The Difference Of A Few Decades

et1991In March 1991, the NRC’s Operations Center was located in the Maryland National Bank Building, in Bethesda, Md., even though the first building of the new, soon-to-be consolidated NRC headquarters complex was occupied in Rockville, Md.

In this photo, then-director of the Division of Safety Systems Analysis, Brian Sheron, briefs the Executive Team during an exercise with the St. Lucie nuclear power plant, in Florida.

At the head of the table (lower left) is Commissioner Ken Rogers, who is joined by a number of high-ranking NRC officials from various offices.

Fast forward to today.

opcentermodernNow, the NRC’s Operations Center is a modern facility using the latest technologies. During this emergency preparedness exercise with the Fermi nuclear power plant, held in April 2014, the Executive Team gets briefings over webcam, while monitoring information on laptops and keeping an eye on the content of simulated social media.

In this exercise, the Executive Team was headed by then-Commissioner George Apostolakis, center, seated.

For more about the NRC’s emergency preparedness activities, visit the agency’s webpage.

 

 

 

El Nino and NRC Preparedness

F. Paul Peduzzi
Branch Chief
Division of Preparedness and Response

elninoEl Niño is already making itself felt along the West Coast. This phenomenon occurs every two to seven years. It warms sea surface temperatures in the eastern-central Pacific Ocean, shifting average sea level pressure and tropical rainfall in dramatic fashion, and leading to weather pattern changes over parts of the northern and southern hemispheres.

Forecasters expect this year’s El Niño to be one of the strongest ever, based on changes in the sea surface temperatures of the Pacific.

No two El Niño’s are exactly alike, but the pattern generally has these effects:

  • Increased rain and snow across California and the southern United States, with less in the Pacific Northwest and in the Ohio and Tennessee valleys
  • Milder than normal winter across the northern United States
  • More hurricanes than normal in the eastern Pacific and fewer in the Atlantic during hurricane season (June 1 – November 30)

The NRC is alert to potential impacts on our licensees. Facilities such as nuclear power plants are designed to withstand much more severe weather than El Niño typically brings. Nuclear power plants are designed and built to withstand the most severe weather and floods historically reported for their area. Several plants experienced strong El Niño weather patterns in the ‘80s and ‘90s with no major problems.

Following the Fukushima events in Japan in 2011, the plants have enhanced their ability to deal with major floods. For example, additional portable safety equipment, such as pumps and generators, is now available both onsite and offsite.

However, El Niño’s storms could block roadways, making it difficult for plant staff to get to the site and impeding public evacuation routes. Plant operators can use other transportation means to get staff and equipment to the site, if needed. And emergency plans have provisions to clear evacuation routes or use alternate routes. These provisions have been tested before, such as during the Missouri River flooding of 2011

The bottom line? California may be unusually soggy this winter, but the NRC does not expect the current El Niño to cause any safety issues for the nation’s nuclear power plants. As always, we remain vigilant and continue to work with other federal agencies on emergency preparedness and incident response, just in case.

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.

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.

Be Aware, Take Action to Prepare

Patricia Milligan
Senior Level Advisor for Emergency Preparedness
 

Be Disaster Aware, Take Action to PrepareSeptember is National Preparedness Month, a time each year to reflect on the importance of knowing what to do before, during and after an emergency. The first step in preparing is to know your hazard. Once you do, FEMA has a wealth of resources to help you plan.

If you live near a nuclear power plant, you probably know it has operated safely and securely for decades. You should still be prepared in the unlikely event of a plant emergency. The two most important things to know are:

1) if you hear a siren or alert, tune in for instructions from state or local officials, and

2) follow those instructions.

A key part of the NRC’s mission is to make sure adequate plans are in place to protect the health and safety of the public. We require plant operators to develop emergency preparedness plans and regularly practice carrying them out in emergency exercises that include first responders and local and other federal government agencies.

These exercises test the skills of those who would respond in a real emergency and identify any areas that need to be addressed. We assess the operators’ performance during exercises. As part of our regular inspections, we also make sure the operators’ emergency plans meet our requirements and are capable of protecting the public.

While the NRC holds to operator to account for their on-site performance, FEMA evaluates how well the offsite response organizations perform during exercises to ensure that they are meeting FEMA requirements.

If you live near an operating nuclear power plant, you should already know whether you work or reside in the “Emergency Planning Zone.” This information would come from your state or local government. You could also receive an annual mailing from the plant. The exact zones and their configurations depend on a number of factors, such as specific site conditions, population and local emergency response.

In the event of an emergency, the plant operator will be in close contact with state and local officials, including emergency responders. Local officials, not the NRC, will make decisions regarding the best course of action. These decisions will factor in technical information about the plant and the weather, as well as other details regarding local emergency plans. That is why it’s important to tune in to their instructions.

It is important to keep in mind that evacuation is not always the best course of action. Depending on your location, you may or may not be advised to take potassium iodide as a way to protect your thyroid. State and local officials are in the best position to make these decisions, so do not take action until you receive instruction from them.

If you want more information on emergency planning, see our website. For more information on National Preparedness Month, check out this website. And don’t forget that FEMA has set aside Sept. 30 for America’s PrepareAthon, an opportunity for everyone to prepare for specific hazards that might affect them.

Like a Good Boy Scout, We’re Always Prepared

Diane Screnci
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region I
 

Because emergency preparedness is so important to the agency’s mission, the NRC has requirements to ensure nuclear power plant operators — and the NRC staff — are prepared to respond to events. And our rules require plants to have up-to-date emergency plans.

The NRC shares federal oversight of nuclear power plant emergency preparedness with FEMA. States have the overall authority for making protective action decisions for residents in the area, such as sheltering and evacuation, if there is an event at a plant. Local emergency responders also have an important role in protecting the public.

Region I incident response personnel participate in an exercise.
Region I incident response personnel participate in an exercise.

Plants must practice their emergency plans periodically to make sure plant staff is prepared to deal with a radiological emergency. Every other year, both the NRC and FEMA evaluate emergency response exercises at each operating plant, with both the state and local emergency responders participating.

NRC inspectors monitor the on-site response. They watch over the shoulders of operators and emergency responders to assure they’re correctly evaluating conditions, taking appropriate steps to deal with the reactor conditions and communicating well with off-site agencies, including the NRC. FEMA evaluates the efforts of state and local governments, and emergency responders.

The NRC staff must also be prepared to respond to an emergency. So several times a year, we participate in exercises, too. For example, the NRC’s region I recently participated in an emergency exercise for which we sent a site team to participate alongside plant emergency responders, and state and local emergency response agencies. We had staff in the various emergency facilities, including the simulator, the plant’s emergency operations facility, the joint news center and the state operations center. We also staffed our own incident response center in the Regional Office.

Participating in exercises gives us a chance to practice how we’d respond in an actual event. That means the NRC staff monitors and independently assesses reactor conditions, performs dose calculations, and reviews protective action recommendations. We also “issue” press releases, participate in mock news conferences, and interact with federal and state officials, and local emergency management agencies.

Afterwards, we take a look at what worked, and what didn’t go so well, and make changes to our procedures so that we’re continually improving.

We also learn from real events, like Hurricane Sandy, and put those lessons into place, so that the next time, we’re even better prepared.