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October 21, 2011

Tenn. system tests responder preparedness

By Pam Sohn
Knoxville News-Sentinel

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. &dmash; The news was bad: There had been an explosion in the diesel area of Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, then a steam vent began leaking radiation, leading to the evacuation of everyone within a 10mile radius to the east, south and west of the plant.

The reality was better: It was all a drill.

"Every two years, we have an evaluated event where they look at our performance and ensure that our plan will do what it needs to do, and that is keep the public's health and safety as our top priority," said TVA spokesman Ray Golden.

About 1,000 TVA workers, along with state and local emergency responders in McMinn, Meigs and Rhea counties, took part Wednesday in the mock emergency preparedness exercise at the plant and in TVA's downtown Chattanooga headquarters.

TVA and all the responders will be graded on their planning and response.

Golden and spokespeople from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and local responders even sparred with mock journalists - students from Lee University who were impatient with the protocol of a news conference that delayed their question-and-answer session.

All the while, evaluators from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency watched the role-playing at the Spring City, Tenn., plant, at a van sampling air for leaked radiation, in the emergency control room on a top floor of TVA's headquarters and even during the news conference.

NRC evaluators kept a check sheet and notes on TVA moves; FEMA graded the state and county responders.

"Our task is to get them as close as we can (to enacting a realistic event) without involving the public," said Lawrence Robertson, a FEMA evaluator.

On Friday the evaluators will reveal the scores in a public meeting at 11 a.m. in Sweetwater, Tenn. Golden said TVA and local responders generally do well on the graded exercises. With three nuclear plants, the utility is drilling often.

"We've had 30 years of experience," Golden said. "Each time we find little opportunities to improve. And I'm sure we will today, too."

In a worst-case scenario, NRC and FEMA could require TVA to do a remedial drill, he said.

"And in a worst-worstcase scenario - if they just lost confidence in us - they could order us to shut down. That would be extremely rare, but it is within their purview," he said.

Golden said the drills are confidence boosters.

"It's real important, and it shows the public we have a plan," he said.

Lessons learned from the March meltdown and radiation leaks at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, as well as during 1979's near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pa., showed that, "by having a plan, it's simply a matter of implementing it; you're not just going off the cuff," he said.

David Lochbaum, a former TVA nuclear operator and NRC training instructor who now monitors safety issues at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors for the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed the biennial exercises have value in training local, state and federal responders to prepare for a real accident.

"It's one thing to read an emergency procedure or participate in computer- based training. But it's more realistic to role-play those assignments to better understand how one's assignment fits into all the other responders' duties," Lochbaum said.

But the exercises also have pitfalls and shouldn't lull the agencies or the public, he said. In a test, responders faced with a decision on whether conditions warrant calling an emergency have a bias to sound the alarm.

"After all, all the responders didn't gather to watch nothing. During a real emergency, the bias is exactly opposite - things couldn't be so bad as to declare an emergency and call in the cavalry," Lochbaum said.

The exercises obviously aren't real, he said, so people are never really evacuated from homes, schools, hospitals, prisons or retirement homes. "The most important part of the whole thing - protecting people should radiation be released - is never, ever tested," Lochbaum said. "So the exercises are good training vehicles, but they don't demonstrate that people will be protected."

Copyright 2011 Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.

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