National Emergency Exercise Prepares Utilities and Other Responders for the Unlikely

March 28, 1979, was a day that forever changed the nuclear power industry – the day of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in Pennsylvania. A combination of equipment malfunctions, design-related problems and human performance errors led to the event.

Many detailed evaluations and scientific studies of this event have occurred, and have concluded the approximately 2 million people around the plant during the event received an average of about one millirem* of radiation from the event – basically, the equivalent of adding an order of french fries to a daily diet. What did result, however, were sweeping changes to further protect public health and safety, such as upgrades and strengthening of nuclear plant design and equipment requirements, improvements in operator training and enhancements to emergency preparedness (EP) requirements.

Fast forward to 2015, when Duke Energy and other partners will participate in a large, multiday, graded emergency preparedness exercise involving Duke Energy’s Robinson Nuclear Plant.

While all nuclear plants are required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to perform a graded emergency preparedness exercise every two years, what makes this exercise unique is its enormous scope. The drill scenario will simulate response to a radiological release that goes beyond the plant boundary – into areas up to 50 miles from the plant, which includes portions of North Carolina and South Carolina. Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and South Carolina state and county officials will participate in response to this simulated event.

The exercise will last five days, the first three occurring July 21 – 23, and dates in September that will simulate what continued response would be months after such a radiological release. On July 21 and 22, Robinson Nuclear Plant will simulate its response to highly unlikely plant conditions. In addition, off-site activities will include field monitoring teams dispatched to take hypothetical samples, emergency responders going to local emergency preparedness agencies and joint press conferences with county, state and federal officials.

There are many benefits for agencies participating in a national exercise. Participation in the exercise not only helps improve our processes and procedures; it is good for the nuclear industry and emergency planning partners to demonstrate collaboration in ensuring public protection.

Events like Fukushima have taught us that we can never be too prepared, and our preparation must be ongoing and collaborative.

*Millirem – the unit of measure for radiation dose (like yards and miles are units of measure for distance).

The Navy – A Valuable Tool for the Nuclear Industry

The United State Nuclear Navy program provides a valuable pipeline for talent to commercial nuclear operations across the country. A significant number of commercial nuclear workers begin their careers in the nuclear navy.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, often referred to as the “father of nuclear energy,” is widely credited with beginning the nuclear program. Through his efforts the Navy launched its first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, in 1954. Since that time, the Navy has been a fertile proving ground for commercial nuclear operations.

There are several reasons why people with Nuclear Navy experience are appealing to commercial nuclear plants. Chief amongst those is the Navy’s stellar nuclear record that produces workers with high standards. According to Forbes, “The Nuclear Navy has logged over 5,400 reactor years of accident-free operations and travelled over 130 million miles on nuclear energy, enough to circle the earth 3,200 times.” The same article cites that no civilian or military member has ever received a radiological dose that exceeded the Federal radiation limits. This type of excellence is attractive to nuclear utilities  that understand the demands of working in an environment that requires safe, precise operation.

“One of the benefits of someone with a Nuclear Navy background is they know that there are high expectations when it comes to nuclear power. They understand that excellence is our standard,”  Henry Curry, a training manager at Duke Energy’s Robinson Nuclear said.

In addition, members onboard nuclear submarines and ships receive a well-rounded education in nuclear energy, they are adept problem solvers. Repairs or issues that crop up on nuclear vessels are often dealt with hundreds or thousands of miles from support, requiring a broad understanding of nuclear operation and maintenance.

“A Navy Nuke has been exposed to every facet of nuclear operation from plant operations, maintenance, and training. They come in having seen how the entire system works, albeit on a much smaller scale, which makes them excellent nuclear operators,” Curry said.

From a cultural standpoint,  their training allows former Navy members to assimilate easily into nuclear plant culture. The importance of following procedures, understanding command and control, and working in a highly precise field are commonplace for former sailors.

It is important to remember that given the unique nature of each nuclear operation, even former Nuclear Navy members have to undergo extensive training before they work at a commercial nuclear facility .

“They still have to complete a similar training program, but they come in with a tremendous training advantage from their previous training and a cultural advantage from their experience working around nuclear energy,” Curry said.

The experience these men and women gained protecting our country now helps them to power it.

Practice Makes Perfect: Nuclear Emergency Preparedness

Duke Energy always expects its nuclear site to operate safely, it’s the number one priority — and because of that priority, each site drills and practices multiple times a year to prepare for the unlikely event of a nuclear station emergency.  These drills and practices are part of an emergency preparedness plan, which is a collaborative effort between Duke Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission state and local government and emergency response officials — including fire departments, hospitals, law enforcement, and local schools — as well as several hundred employees. The partnerships with these agencies are continuously developed during drills and exercises. Each nuclear site has at least five drills a year and graded exercises every other year.

Duke Energy employees, local and state officials work in one of many emergency response facilities during a drill.

Duke Energy employees, local and state officials work in one of many emergency response facilities during a drill.

The exercises not only test Duke Energy’s ability to appropriately respond to an emergency event, but also the coordination of the state and county agencies. Regular exercises ensure that in the unlikely event of an emergency at a nuclear power plant, information would flow freely between Duke Energy, the state and the counties; plant personnel would follow procedures to safely shut down the affected units; and the public would receive the appropriate information to ensure their safety.

Exercises are preceded by months of detailed planning between Duke Energy, the state and the counties. Duke Energy and partner offsite agencies sit on a task force to work out the details of the emergency preparedness plan, and the plan is regularly updated based on changes to area population, infrastructure and industry operating experience.

In the unlikely event of an emergency, Duke Energy would make recommendations to the state and county, but the counties and state have responsibility for the sounding of sirens, evacuations and public recommendations.

Neighbors living within the 10-mile emergency planning zone (EPZ) around nuclear stations receive an emergency planning calendar every year, which contains valuable information, such as reception centers and important contact information. Duke Energy also provides emergency information to hotels, schools and on our Nuclear Emergency Preparedness website.