published Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Officials lay out scenario for nuclear disaster at Watts Bar

TVA workers participate in a drill Wednesday in the utility's central emergency control center in downtown Chattanooga. TVA employees and emergency responders in McMinn, Meigs and Rhea counties conducted an emergency preparedness exercise simulating the response to an earthquake at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.
TVA workers participate in a drill Wednesday in the utility's central emergency control center in downtown Chattanooga. TVA employees and emergency responders in McMinn, Meigs and Rhea counties conducted an emergency preparedness exercise simulating the response to an earthquake at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.
Photo by John Rawlston.
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The scenario for this pseudo nuclear emergency was written much earlier, and most of the 700 people responding had no idea how it would play out.

It was all just a drill, but at the Tennessee Valley Authority building downtown officials were role playing as if the emergency was the real thing. On Wednesday, events began to unfold at 8:07 a.m. when a simulated earthquake rattled Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City.

One of two unit reactors shut down and more damage could come. One man, officials at the site reported, had been injured, trapped under equipment. "He's contaminated," someone announced.

  • photo
    Notebooks of emergency procedures are kept on shelves in the central emergency control center at the TVA office building in downtown Chattanooga participate in a drill Wednesday. TVA employees and emergency responders in McMinn, Meigs and Rhea counties conducted an emergency preparedness exercise simulating the response to an earthquake at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

In the test, those on site had 15 minutes to declare the emergency to the state, county and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"All the players are playing," said Ray Golden, senior manager of nuclear communication at TVA.

Upstairs a group gathered in a key-locked room guarded by police. They looked at screens of maps and measurements covering a wall that helped them determine the next move. Radiation experts clustered to the left. Engineering experts clustered to the right.

Downstairs, in a joint information center, media contacts and public officials gathered to spread the word. They monitored Facebook, television and radio to see if the right information was getting out.

They didn't know if or when the emergency would escalate. Radioactive particles could seep into the water and escape the site as steam through the ventilation stack.

"At the fence line of the (nuclear plant) people will get more exposure than someone a mile away," Golden said.

TVA's nuclear headquarters in Chattanooga runs more than a dozen tests like this a year. The utility is evaluated every two years to ensure it meets federal standards. One of these evaluations is coming up in October, and an assessment will be open to the public a few days later, officials said.

During Wednesday's test, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the American Red Cross and McMinn, Rhea, Meigs counties were involved.

As Wednesday's drill unfolded, the situation escalated through the four levels of seriousness -- unusual event, alert, site area emergency and, ultimately, general emergency -- the highest and most critical category.

  • photo
    TVA workers in the central emergency control center at the TVA office building in downtown Chattanooga participate in a drill Wednesday. TVA employees and emergency responders in McMinn, Meigs and Rhea counties conducted an emergency preparedness exercise simulating the response to an earthquake at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

In a simulation, everyone within 10 miles of the site, including those in Spring City, Evensville and Decatur, was asked to evacuate.

With police rushing traffic, the population of 30,000 residents could get out of the area in 7 to 8 hours, officials said. Evacuation is ordered when a leak occurs as a precaution because long-term exposure to radiation can cause cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The injured chemistry technician was transported by a simulated helicopter. This time, Golden said, the worker wasn't required to travel to the hospital.

Other workers who stay on site, he said, are protected in a shielded room with ventilation. Scuba gear is on hand in case they need to breathe through an apparatus.

After the nuclear disaster in Fukashima, Japan, which was triggered by the devastating combination of an earthquake and a tsunami, nuclear plant operators have focused more on safety precautions, Golden said.

Since the event in March, TVA has purchased $500,000 worth of satellite communication equipment, emergency electric generators and on-site portable pumps to move water through nuclear reactors in the event electricity is lost.

  • photo
    This file photo of April 2007, released by the Tennessee Valley Authority, shows the cooling tower of the single operating reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn.

"We won't let this opportunity go by," he said.

The drill wrapped at 2 p.m. At the end of the day, a person would have had to stand for 50 hours within two miles of the leak to get the radiation equivalent of a chest X-ray, Golden said. To decontaminate, those exposed would need to shower, get new clothes and be monitored.

"I think it went pretty well," he said.

But TVA officials did learn a few things. They might need to think harder about their approach to social media, and they forgot to mike reporters in the news conference.

"We always find little nuggets to improve," he said.

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about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
cisland said...

Spokespersons for nuclear always declare that nuclear power is "safe," in totally broad, reassuring tones. Put the public's mind at ease; induce them to believe nuclear reactors pose no dangers. The fact that these kinds of drills are required puts all that reassurance to a lie. The truth is nuclear reactors are extremely dangerous. It would be sheer foolishness to think that an accident as severe as the one at Fukushima, Japan, could not possibly happen in the Tennessee Valley. Nuclear reactors are DANGEROUS! And, it costs all of us who buy nuclear generated electricity a lot of money to pay for all the work necessary just to reduce the chances of a nuclear disaster actually happening.

September 22, 2011 at 12:47 p.m.

A Drill, an exercise… Nice and convenient, plus real life (sarcasm). Arrive at work, get a coffee, a donut, we were notified months ago that this drill is scheduled this day. Starts at 7 minutes after 8 AM. Ends at 2PM, Not even paying overtime for this one! This is not a drill of any significance toward real world. How may TVA Emergency Response personnel can we muster a 3 AM, or even after 4 in the afternoon? Real World, look at the geographic maps, if an earthquake affects Watts Bar, rest assured Sequoyah is being shaken (same seismic plate). TWO drills at once, not sure the responders have enough fingers to count on. With Oak Ridge National Labs up the river and Dept. of Energy (runs Oak Ridge labs) having little of those BAD regulations the evil Democrats impose on TVA and the rest of us, I’d worry little about the Commercial Reactors at WBN and SQN. What is this “Radiation experts clustered to the left? Engineering experts clustered to the right”, seems like Team Work would be encouraged during these times. Further, “They monitored Facebook, television and radio to see if the right information was getting out.” WOW TVA actually pays to do this? Communication is very important during these events, seems like everything would be “pre-checked”, as trying to correct something after published or announced is near fruitless in today’s communication. Continuing; the statement, ”and on-site portable pumps to move water through nuclear reactors in the event electricity is lost” . Let me get this right. “Portable pumps will replace the 4 Reactor Coolant pumps rated at 9,700 horsepower each? Westinghouse certainly overdesigned that system, just a few portable pumps needed! Theses are just too easy targets: “To decontaminate, those exposed would need to shower, get new clothes and be monitored”… wow, just tell people to stay home and take a shower rather than evacuate in line across a two lane bridge crossing the river. AIRBORNE radiation is a concern of utmost health hazard. Maybe an across the counter cough syrup is needed. Concluding, “We always find little nuggets to improve”, are these nuclear fuel pellets, ejected from the core?
Nuclear Power is relatively safe as a machine, it’s the uninformed, uneducated that make criticism so easy. Drills are important and required. A pre-drill to a required drill is good management. The drill should reflect the real world however, and reporting on it should reflect knowledge and a careful choice of words and colloquiums. It is an exact science, not astrology or numerology, etc. or politics.

September 22, 2011 at 1:43 p.m.
human said...

In response to the above rant, and as a TVA drill participant, let me offer the following: PART 1: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission established laws and regulations governing emergency response for all nuclear plants, as has the state of Tennessee and other governmental groups like FEMA and the Coast Guard. TVA meets those laws. To ensure we do so correctly, we conduct routine training drills, Integrated Training Drills (like the one yesterday), and full-scale Graded Exercises. The drill yesterday involved all counties and agencies, and in total involved more than 1000 participants for greater than 6 hours. This is a considerable cost, shared by all participants and the general public via tax dollars. Why do we do all this? As the prior commenters stated, nuclear power is dangerous. If the worst happens and we fail in all the other measures we have taken in response to Three Mile Island and Cernobyl, and at the present time in response to the Fukushema disaster, then we must deal with a release of radiation to the environment and to the public. We take this seriously, and in my 36+ year career in commercial nuclear power I have been assigned 4-week rotation on one or another emergency team continuously. I carry a beeper for immediate response, with <60 minute time limits per law around the clock for the duty week, always 'fit-for-duty' and always under random drug and alcohol screening to ensure this is true. I have trained for 36 years in my duties, which are challenging and continually in need of refinement and updating. In the drill yesterday we experienced an accelerated timeline that included a significant earthquake that potentially damaged several dams and brought down high-voltage distribution towers. The reactor at Watts Bar was simulated as having experienced a reactor coolant pump locked rotor and large break Loss of Coolant Accident, further impeded by loss of all onsite AC power. It required operators 7 minutes to restore vital emergency power to one train of emergency pumps, which caused a simulated partial core uncovery and partial fuel damage, releasing radioactive byproducts to the containment building. Several hours later another simulated break in a circulating residual heat removal system pipe in the auxiliary building outside the containment released some of these byproducts to the environment, where the simulated weather blew them downwind in several directions. All of that led to county, state and federal emergency center staff to be activated from here to Washington DC, and in fact at one point an NRC Commissioner discussed the situation and assistance that TVA required to mitigate the emerging disaster. As I said, we did not treat this as a casual exercise, and keep in mind that this was merely the practice run for the 'Graded Exercise' in which the individual responses from thousands of responders will be judged in accordance with federal law.

September 22, 2011 at 3:18 p.m.
human said...

PART 2: This year I have received an afterhours drill call out and physical response to the emergency center at 11:00 PM on a Friday evening, and in the past we have conducted exercises that started at 4:00 AM and at 8:00PM. During the April 27th tornado storms this year, shortly after the Fukushima disaster when we all thought that "that can't happen here," I received a call at 10:00PM to come to the emergency center for actual duty, starting at 01:00AM, in response to the nearly complete loss of offsite AC power to the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama. I did so and maintained a 12-hour shift from 7:00PM to 07:00AM for the next 5 days until emergency crews restored a second 161-KV line to the plant. That is as close to a Fukushima event as I have experienced, and yet we did not achieve an actual radiological emergency response level at a point where the federal laws even require Activation of the emergency centers. We are alert at all times, in a professional capacity, with the combined resources of thousands of others in all necessary fields, including police, national guard, manufacturers, workers, helicopter pilots, firefighters, hospitals, schools, etc. Our sole mission at my emergency center is to protect the public, and it has been a central tenant in my career, one of 3 'jobs' I perform: my job as a manager, as an outage worker, and on an emergency team. Other factual errors in the Rant: The central emergency center pictured poorly in this photo does not do justice to the size and scale of the facility. A central room hosts a horseshoe desk with positions for 11 key personnel -- above this are 8 projectors displaying computer images of weather conditions, emergency priority lists and action teams, plant system readings, and other displays. Behind them are rooms and desks for 2 dozen other agency responders such as the NRC who can oversee the situation and provide additional resources. To the right (background in the photo) is a side room for the Plant Assessment Team, which includes desks and computers for 9 persons, including a Resource officer in contact with dozens of other provides as needed, a Core Damage group who determine extent of radionuclide release from the reactor, and a plant assessment team made up of operators and engineers who monitor plant computer systems and phone links to the control room and other plant emergency personnel to relay the situation directly and provide assistance in determining the right course of action to emerging threats.

September 22, 2011 at 3:20 p.m.
human said...

PART 3: To the left (behind the photographer) is a similar room with a dozen more personnel for radiological response, including weathermen, radio Van responders directly measuring off-site dose and radionuclide readings, and computer operators estimating the effect downwind from the plant to provide the State of Tennessee in Nashville a recommendation on how best to protect the public (i.e., whether to shelter from what may be blowing overhead, or to evacuate and in which direction). The State at that point will decide what to do, what sirens to activate, etc. It is easy to make trivial what is not understood, and it is hard to convey all the above in most media. I appreciate the effort the Times Free Press took to communicate the drill. PS - My team is 'playing' in the Watts Bar Graded Exercise on October 19th, and again in the Browns Ferry Integrated Training Drill on November 8th, and again in the Browns Ferry Graded Exercise on December 7th.

September 22, 2011 at 3:21 p.m.
GarryMorgan said...

Dear Mr. Human, Mr. Golden and Bureaucrats;

You failed the exercise.

Table top scenarios play a role, they do not take the place of setting up the portable inflatable decontamination units-were they tested, field communications-were they tested-does the general emergency frequency and its transmitter work-does it work 50 miles out, deploying emergency responders and public safety personnel-were they deployed, measuring wind and surface air currents-ground and aloft to chart the path of the radioactive plume-did you do it and was the equipment working 2 miles, 5 miles, 10 miles, 25 miles and 50 miles etc, etc.or were you busy drinking coffee and telling war stories? Was the National Guard called in, how long did it take them to respond? Where is the location of the nearest M.U.S.T Unit, were they alerted-did you coordinate a total response including the National Command Center?????

To be proficient and insure the public is protected you must train,train then train more. No time or finacial resources to make actual deployment of emergency responders and the Guard, then you fail.

When the going gets tough in a scenario where thousands of lives depend on the actions of a few you had best be prepared to meet the impossible, the improbable and the unexpected. Anything less and you fail the test.

Let us hope and pray no disaster such as a severe solar storm or small well trained groups of terrorist knocking out the power grid for more than a week, resulting in en masse "station blackouts" TVA wide, if it does you had better be prepared for the improbable scenario of unexpected probabilities, a mass casualty scenario, are you prepared? Have plenty of body bags 'cause you failed the test.

And Mr. Human, you are an example of that which causes trouble to the community and the TVA. I would suggest you report to your boss and tell them you need to be retrained, you are an example of what not to be in an emergency situation. You are looking for the political attaboy on a media forum, you are dangerous. And besides, the scenario you described was not "a close Fukushima event," no where near 3 reactor meltdowns and an MOX Plutonium fuel energy detonation. Go fill someone else full of bull! Your attitude is an unacceptable, arrogant attitude which more often than not causes the unintended multiplicitous scenario resulting in disaster. I shudder to think you might be someone in a position of responsibility. God help us all.

Garry Morgan, U.S. Army Medical Department Retired

September 22, 2011 at 4:12 p.m.
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