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.