Nuclear Drill Tests the Readiness of Duke's Professional Communicators

Editor’s note: This article is a behind-the-scenes look at a recent nuclear drill. The events described never occurred and are part of a fictional scenario created by a scenario development team for the drill.

Emergency drills test strength, calm and will under pressure. And there’s no room to be timid or shy.

A recent drill with one of the McGuire nuclear emergency response teams was no different. During this exercise, in which a series of unlikely events threw McGuire Nuclear Station unit 1 into a classified emergency event, more than 60 people from multiple departments gathered to demonstrate the roles they would fill during a nuclear emergency.

Duke Energy’s Corporate Communications team worked to disseminate accurate and timely information to an army of mock reporters clamoring for answers to share with a make-believe worried public. It was a complicated task that would, undoubtedly, be even more difficult in a real emergency.

That’s why the Corporate Communications team participates in nuclear drills, as well as drills with other departments, multiple times each year. If a major incident were to occur, the Corporate Communications emergency response team would serve as the main conduit for the flow of information to the outside world, including customers and the media, as well as internal stakeholders.

“It’s something we hope will never happen, but we need to be prepared for the unthinkable,” said Tina Worley, Duke Energy’s Emergency Communications manager. “Drills help us prepare for the unexpected by uncovering important lessons learned that we can apply to continuously improve our emergency plans. The recent events in Japan simply underscore the need for good preparation and readiness.”

Challenging situations

Drills help prepare the nuclear response team to be ready for any type of actual event, as well as for multiple drills and exercises mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. For Corporate Communications, these drills mean staffing a Joint Information Center (JIC for short), which is a dedicated “command center” used for all emergency communications work. The communications team also uses the JIC as a command post during other emergency events, such as major power outages or flooding.  The concept of the Corporate Communications emergency response team is the old philosophy of “train like you fight and fight like you train.”  For the communications team this means, as much as possible, using people in roles that are part of or similar to their day-to-day jobs – i.e., those who do Internal Communications fill internal communications roles in the JIC, those who deal with media day-to-day, work with the media during drills/real events, etc.

In the recent nuclear drill, the declared nuclear event started with hypothetical damage to a used fuel assembly during movement of fuel assemblies in the used fuel pool. Nuclear drill scenarios are designed to take the plant from a low-level emergency to the “worst-case” emergency. No matter how unlikely or improbable the scenario is, the nuclear emergency responders must work through the scenarios, proving they are prepared to address any type of emergency.

High-pressure roles

The drill required the time and commitment of more than 25 Corporate Communications staffers and volunteers from other departments, such as the Customer Call Center.

During the exercise, Valerie Patterson, communications manager at McGuire, helped Bill Pitesa, senior vice president, Nuclear Operations, prepare for mock press conferences. Even in a make-believe world, the situation can get a little stressful.

“These drills test all aspects of our organizational readiness to respond to an event,” Pitesa said. “We want to extract all the learnings possible during these scenarios to ensure we are prepared.”

Additional communications professionals filled other roles in the JIC – from media relations spokespeople, who talked with mock reporters, to website content-managers, who practiced posting news bulletins and updating announcements on the company website. The emphasis and focus for all responders was on accuracy and precision. Cooperation and teamwork also played key roles.

“Long before the incidents with Katrina, the Gulf oil spill and Japan, we knew how important it was to be organized and coordinated in a crisis situation,” Worley said. “It takes a team to do this well.”

Social media adds another layer

With the explosion of social-networking sites increasing the need for speedier reaction times and increased interaction with the public, Duke added social media roles to the drill roster last year.

Like other companies, Worley said, Duke sees that in today’s 24/7, need-to-know-fast world, word gets out on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other channels faster than you can blink an eye.

In the recent drill, designated mock “tweeters” pretended to be media and members of the public on Twitter (they did this via an internal secure channel, so none of these mock “tweets” were public). Others had the job of responding to the tweets. Still others shot Flip camera video coverage of Pitesa for sharing on the company’s YouTube channel.

“We know if something were to happen, people would use social media to communicate with each other,” explained Michelle Pearson, Duke’s Social Media director. “Social media is an important tool for helping us share the correct information at the right time. We can’t control what people say on the Internet, but we can be on these channels to help give them the facts.”

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