Nuclear emergency planning overhaul draws fire

Plants like one at Palo change drill procedures

The Duane Arnold Energy Center, Iowa's only nuclear power plant, near Palo (AP)
The Duane Arnold Energy Center, Iowa's only nuclear power plant, near Palo (AP)

A rare overhaul of the nation’s emergency planning rules for nuclear reactor accidents that came quietly down the pike last year has inflamed industry critics studying lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved new rules last August intended to improve emergency preparedness plans and exercises at more than 100 United States nuclear plants, including Iowa’s only nuclear plant near Palo.

The rules require more variety in the public drills to prepare for nuclear accidents, including simulations of hostile force attacks on nuclear facilities, and drills that do not involve a simulated release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

More than 400 Iowans participated in a federally evaluated two-day exercise on May 15 and 16 that simulated a chain of events beginning with the scenario of a truck with mechanical problems running into the Duane Arnold Energy Center and causing equipment problems that eventually led to a radioactive release.

Drill planners until now had to come up with such unlikely scenarios twice a year even though they sometimes seem far-fetched.

“We don’t want licensees and off-site responders to assume it’s going to go to fuel damage and off-site release every time,” said Bob Jickling of the NRC’s Chicago-based Region III office, who came to Cedar Rapids along with FEMA officials to evaluate the drill.

NRC Region III spokeswoman Viktoria Mytling said the release scenarios have become “rote.”

“Everybody knows it’s going to end up in a radioactive release,” she said, even though plenty of other bad things could happen within the plant that require preparation.

The rules also included new requirements for a backup methods for alerting the public and updating evacuation time estimates as population levels change through the years. They require the designation of a backup facility for emergency response coordination.

Nuclear watchdogs, however, were hoping for stronger preparedness requirements after the earthquake- and tsunami-triggered Fukushima Daiichi disaster, which has been a stark reminder of the challenges of nuclear safety.

Well-known watchdog groups such as Greenpeace and Union of Concerned Scientists have slammed the new rules.

Lessons learned

Dr. John Rachow of Oxford has studied Fukushima Daiichi closely as immediate past president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility. Rachow spends more time than most thinking about the evacuation of frail populations such as nursing home residents, because he is an internist specializing in geriatric medicine at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Rachow said the NRC established a 10-mile radius as the basic evacuation zone around every nuclear reactor more than three decades ago after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and hasn’t changed that zone designation even though population densities have vastly increased and the nuclear reactors are much older.

“What we have learned from the accident in Chernobyl and the Fukushima accident is that the radioactive releases do not occur symmetrically,” Rachow said. “Fukushima went out 125 miles.”

Rachow said emergency preparedness planning needs have also increased with increased severity of flooding and even increased tornado activity.

He said those kind of weather events have implications not only for evacuation, but for increased potential of radioactive release. That’s because such weather events can cut off outside power needed to maintain cooling of the water used to store nuclear fuel in the event the reactor must be shut down and emergency generators fail.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who resigned last week, was considered by many the strongest nuclear safety advocate on a NRC dominated by members with nuclear industry backgrounds.

Jaczko did not apologize for failing to delay the new rules after the Fukushima Daiichi crisis that began on March 11, 2011, and is still unfolding.

“Although there are likely to be lessons learned from Japan that will apply to emergency preparedness, I do not think that we need to wait to implement the many enhancements that this rule will provide,” Jaczko said in prepared remarks.

Programs in Palo

Florida-based NextEra Energy is the majority owner of the Duane Arnold Energy Center. Spokesman Peter Robbins didn’t have much to say about the new regulations except that the company plans to comply.

“Our emergency response program is comprehensive and coordinated with our offsite partners to effectively deal with any situation that may occur,” Robbins said. “We routinely test our program through drills and exercises involving both onsite and offsite emergency response teams.”

The Duane Arnold emergency exercise evaluated by FEMA and the NRC this month involved more than 400 participants, divided primarily into on-site staff at the power plant and community responders. They even included several ambulance operators, two hospitals and “receiving sites” for evacuees in Iowa City and Marshalltown.

Some of the most veteran coordinators of the drill said they haven’t learned everything they will need to know to interpret the new rules, but consider them an improvement rather than, as characterized in some news accounts, as a weakening.

“The baseline has been there for 30 years,” said Jake Nicholson of Iowa Homeland Security’s Readiness and Response Bureau. “We are going to have to do some tweaking. It’s not an overhaul.”

Long process

Benton County Emergency Management Agency County Coordinator Scott Hansen sounded supportive of the widened scenario opportunities. He did not find the post-Fukushima criticism of the rules useful.

“This (rule-making) was a long process,” Hansen said. “It has to be — it’s government.”

Hansen said the organizations that have criticized the new rules as being implemented suddenly or too quickly were, four or five years ago, saying that the rule-making was not going fast enough.

Linn County Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Goldberg said the Duane Arnold emergency exercises make the Cedar Rapids area one of the best prepared in the nation to deal with a major disaster.

During the massive June 2008 Cedar River flood which produced no casualties in Linn County, Goldberg said virtually the same cast of emergency responders felt much more ready and comfortable taking over their disaster roles because of the Duane Arnold drills they’d been through many times before. 

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