County Prepares for Nuclear Emergency

The week-long Perry Nuclear Power Plant Evaluated Exercise, which is overseen by FEMA, centered on a 'mock event.'

by Warren Dillaway, Star Beacon, Ashtabula, Ohio / September 14, 2016

(TNS) - Screens flashed with the latest information and Ashtabula County, Ohio, government officials worked with each other — and officials off-site — in response to an emergency at Perry Nuclear Power Plant Tuesday.

The effort was not in response to a leak or terrorist attack, but a "mock" nuclear emergency mandated bi-yearly by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Mike Fitchet, Ashtabula County EMA director.

The week-long Perry Nuclear Power Plant Evaluated Exercise, which is overseen by FEMA, centered on a "mock event" occurring at the plant, 10 Center Road, Perry, less than 10 miles from the Ashtabula County border. County officials coordinated their response from the bowels of the Ashtabula County Courthouse, where the Ashtabula County Emergency Management Agency is housed.

Fitchet said the exercise includes four steps ranging from "an unusual event" through a "general emergency."

"The worst case scenario would be a general emergency," he said.

Participants don't know what level the exercise will start and what type of conclusion will occur. Scenarios can range anywhere from a malfunction at the plant to a terrorist attack to a radioactive leak.

Planning for the event takes months and on-going plans continue all year to make sure area emergency workers are equipped to keep the public safe, Fitchet said.

The likelihood of any major event at the nuclear power plant is slim, he said, and detailed planning in the last 30 years has improved how government reacts to any potential disasters.

"The plant is designed to get people out of danger before it occurs," Fitchet said, adding the plan for nuclear issues "is designed by history."

Only three major nuclear leaks have occurred throughout the world — Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union; Three Mile Island, in central Pennsylvania and Fukushima in Japan (following a tsunami) — and each were long-term problems that escalated, Fitchet said. Even in those instances, the safety areas were relatively confined, he said.

The drill is designed to handle all the details of a radioactive release from the plant, Fitchet said.

"I don't see a melt down every happening anywhere. That is more something from the movies. The big concern is a release of radioactive contaminants off site," he said.

Drill details

Tuesday's drill was jammed into a relatively short period of time that would actually have taken days or weeks in case of a major problem.

"It's a slow process," Fitchet said.

Dozens of fire departments, police departments, county agencies, schools and even businesses are part of the major drill, which involves massive communications, coordinated in the county's emergency center.

While Ashtabula County is running their response, there is a simultaneous drill occurring with state officials and county counterparts from Lake and Geagua counties, Fitchet said.

Decision makers, which include Fitchet, the three Ashtabula County commissioners and Ashtabula County Sheriff William Johnson, meet in a separate room in the EMA office and two scribes take detailed notes on the interaction.

"You get this feeling of teamwork. None of this can happen without everybody here," said Ashtabula County Commissioner Dan Claypool.

As details of the "mock" event come out, the command center responds and calls organizations affected by the event — starting with school children, which is the first group that must be moved. During Tuesday's event, planners transported children from Madison and Geneva to the Lakeside Elementary School complex.

Evaluation and education

As part of the process, controllers, who deal directly with trainers prior to the drill and then monitor the event as it proceeds, work with agencies to provide suggestions and understanding of proper procedures in case of a nuclear emergency.

Bill Mahan, a retired utility liaison with the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Plant, was a controller for the event and always tries to learn something new that can be taken back to Pennsylvania.

FEMA evaluators have a more detailed role in the drill providing a "report card" after the event.

"I've been doing it for eight years," said David Ortman of the FEMA Region 5 office in Chicago, which includes five states.

Ortman said he spent eight years in the Air National Guard as an emergency manager before moving on to FEMA. He said evaluators go through a screening process than multiple classes and hands on observation before moving on to become an evaluator.

The controllers worked with area agencies during a "dress rehearsal" about a month ago with no evaluators on hand to grade the event.

A final grade for this week's drill is expected to be issued Friday.


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