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May 25, 2013

Are we ready? Crews prepare for nuclear accident

NEW CASTLE — The chances of an accident occurring at the Beaver Valley Power Station are considered to be small.

Nonetheless, FirstEnergy Corp., along with first responders and emergency management personnel, are continually preparing just in case.

Federal law requires nuclear operating companies to develop emergency response plans.

Every other year, FirstEnergy, which owns the nuclear power plant in Shippingport, mails brochures to residents and businesses within a 10-mile radius of the plant. The brochures explain the four different types of events that may occur at the plant and actions people should take if there is an emergency.

In the other years, FirstEnergy mails a letter to the same addresses and refers them to the telephone book that contains information similar to that in the brochures.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in conjunction with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, established the 10–mile zone.

Jennifer Young, chief spokeswoman for FirstEnergy, said 10 miles was established because “research has demonstrated that’s where you could see radiation doses exceeding EPA guidelines.”

“It’s seen as the most vulnerable to be impacted from radiation exposure,” she said.

Up to a 50-mile radius of the plant is “where you would be primarily concerned” with protecting water supply, food products and livestock from radiation contamination.

The four emergency classifications are:

•Unusual event — This is the least serious and refers to a small problem that poses no danger to the public.

•Alert — Small amounts of radiation could leak inside the plant, but pose no danger to the public. Federal, state and county officials are informed and will begin emergency preparedness actions.

•Site area emergency — Plant equipment needed for safe operations is affected or a security event occurs. Radiation releases are not expected to exceed federal limits beyond plant boundaries. Sirens may sound and residents are advised to listen to a radio or television station that broadcasts Emergency Alert System messages.

•General emergency — This is the most serious. Radiation could be released outside plant boundaries. If necessary, people in some areas of the 10-mile zone will be advised to seek shelter or evacuate.

Young noted that when it comes to a general emergency, it doesn’t necessarily mean people would have to evacuate.

“We keep the county informed. We make a recommendation. Then it’s up to the county. It’s really the county’s call as to what action the public should take. But we work closely with the government agencies.”

Everything that is done is based on information from the plant, she said.

Young said FirstEnergy continually practices and drills with local, state and federal responders, emergency management agencies and schools, usually on a quarterly basis.

A joint information center staffed by utility personnel, local, state and federal officials and local responders is set up in an area south of the plant.

“We haven’t had to activate the joint information center, but we practice quarterly,” Young said. “It’s a very integrated and detailed practice so that we are well prepared in case of an emergency.”

Any decision to expand beyond the 10-mile radius is made by the counties in conjunction with the state.

Young said those involved in emergency preparedness also learn from events that have occurred at other plants, such as the damage to Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan following an earthquake in March 2011.

The plants are well protected, she said, adding, “The likelihood of an event is very, very small. But it’s our responsibility to gear for events that may be unexpected.”

Young explained the plans in effect also prepare people to deal with weather–related emergencies, such as tornadoes and flooding.

Brian Melcer, Lawrence County public safety director, said Lawrence is a support county.

“Our main role is to have a system in place for caring of those evacuees,” he said.

Melcer said there are periodic training sessions and quarterly support meetings. The support meetings usually involve other counties, officials from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia and FirstEnergy.

An exercise is conducted every other year that is federally evaluated, he said. Prior to the exercise, update training is conducted “with our responders,” primarily the North Beaver fire department, hazmat volunteers, Red Cross and Lawrence County Emergency Operations staff.

“It’s something that’s well planned,” Melcer said of preparing for an emergency. “We communicate pretty well with our counterparts.”

(Email: jmanna@ncnewsonline.com)

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