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).

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