Friday, October 5, 2012

Emergency Preparedness:

The Role of Nuclear Power Plants 

I was not surprised to read a recent article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette about the findings and conclusions of a report from the National Academy of Sciences on emergency preparedness, particularly with regard to the link between nuclear power plants and the emergency preparedness of surrounding communities.

In particular, the report found that there was a strong and positive link between the effectiveness of emergency response measures taken during the floods in Cedar Rapids in 2008 and the emergency response preparedness at the Duane Arnold nuclear power plant nearby.  (Downloads of the Academy report, "Disaster Resilience:  A National Imperative," are available at the National Academies Press website.)

This is not at all surprising.  The fact that emergency response preparations are required for a nuclear power plant means that the community has prepared and rehearsed for an emergency.  It means that plant, city, county and state personnel have the training and equipment and facilities needed to handle a disaster.  It means that people have been assigned responsibilities and have drilled together and practiced what to do.

In the end, it often doesn't matter what the nature of the disaster is.  All disasters have some elements in common.  Information about the nature and extent of the problem needs to be obtained and assessed.  Appropriate authorities need to be notified.  Instructions need to be provided to local personnel, as well as to members of the public.  If evacuation is needed, provisions have to be made for schools and hospitals.

Mike Goldberg, director of Linn County Emergency Management, reported that, during the flooding in 2008, “Everybody came in and sat down at their usual table with their usual phone and usual maps and usual equipment,” he recalled. “It was just not a radiological event. It was a flood event. But they did the same mission.”

In fact, this is not the first time that the emergency response preparations for a nuclear power plant have been implemented for a totally different kind of emergency.  When I worked at NRC, I recall one incident where a truckload with a hazardous chemical spilled on a highway in an area that had a nuclear power plant nearby.  In that case, too, the preparations for a nuclear emergency proved to be very applicable and helpful for handling the emergency response for the chemical spill. 

Obviously, having a nuclear power plant in the neighborhood is not the only way to prepare for an emergency situation.  Most communities have some vulnerabilities, whether it be to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, or chemical spills on highways, so all communities would do well to prepare for such incidents.  However, in practice, the more specific and stringent requirements imposed for nuclear power plants are a powerful spur to assuring that the necessary plans for an emergency are developed and maintained--usually at levels well beyond that for other potential emergency situations.  This preparation often goes unrecognized--at least until and unless a non-nuclear disaster occurs.  Thus, it was interesting to see such recognition in the case of the Cedar Rapids flood. 

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