Meltdown

Hatch declares alert. Unit 2 hit by lightning." The ominous message appeared suddenly on monitors throughout the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's operations center in Rockville, Md., at 9:27 a.m. on Aug. 23.

The Edwin I. Hatch nuclear power plant in Bailey, Ga., was in trouble. Lightning had struck one of the plant's two units, knocking out electrical power and the emergency diesel generators. The blow had shifted the reactor core cover, and coolant was leaking into the atmosphere. Radioactivity levels around the site registered above normal.

The NRC operations center responded immediately. At 9:46 a.m., the center upgraded its response mode from standby to initial activation. The office director and regional administrator dispatched a regional NRC management and analysis team to the plant. The operations center notified state officials as soon as the alert was issued.

Maintaining Preparedness

No nuclear emergency really threatened the Edwin I. Hatch plant. The entire morning's events were designed to test the power plant's-and the state and local governments'-emergency preparedness. It also allowed the NRC to practice its response.

The NRC was formed in 1975 as an independent agency to take over the regulatory functions of the defunct Atomic Energy Commission. The NRC regulates medical, academic and industrial uses of nuclear materials as well as commercial nuclear power reactors. The agency aims to protect the public, defense installations and the environment. It operates four regional incident response centers in addition to its headquarters operations center.

The 109 licensed nuclear power reactors in the United States generate approximately one-fifth of the nation's electricity. Although many precautions are exercised to minimize the possibility of an accident, equipment fails on occasion. The primary danger is not a nuclear explosion-reactors can't explode like nuclear bombs-but a loss of cooling water. Without the cooling agent, fuel rod temperatures can rise high enough to damage the rods, causing radiation leaks.

To minimize such dangers, the NRC inspects nuclear plants regularly; each plant has two NRC resident inspectors. The utilities are required to file regular reports on out-of-the-ordinary events to the NRC.

Thousands of these events are reported annually, but only 1 percent to 2 percent are serious enough to warrant any remedial action. The risk of a major nuclear accident is difficult to quantify. But the country's worst nuclear incident, which occurred at Three Mile Island in 1979, pointed to the need for each plant to have an emergency plan. About half the plant's fuel melted at Three Mile Island, near Middletown, Pa. One flaw identified in the follow-up analysis was the inadequate preparedness of plant operators. The accident also pointed to the need for the state, local and federal governments to improve emergency planning.

Test Plans

Since then, emergency plans and ways of testing them have become more formal. Every two years, nuclear plants' emergency plans are tested along with state plans to ensure information gathering, consultations between agencies and instructions to the public can be carried out adequately. Sometimes even schools and nursing homes are evacuated on a small scale to test the process. The Federal Emergency Management Agency grades plant and state performance.

Three or four times a year the NRC picks one of the tests and "plays along as if it were a real emergency and we're responding to it," says Rich Barrett, chief of the NRC's Emergency Response Branch. This is what the agency did with the Hatch exercise. Once every five years or so a full federal exercise is carried out. "We really bring out all the troops" during those drills, Barrett says, adding that such exercises are infrequent because they are extremely expensive.

The NRC's responsibilities during a nuclear emergency, simulated or real, are to monitor and assess the situation and direct the utility to take actions to protect the public. The commission coordinates the responses of other agencies, such as the Energy Department and FEMA. It also helps state officials interpret technical data and keeps updated information flowing to the public, Congress and the White House.

Other agencies fill support roles as they are needed. The Energy Department monitors radiation and the Agriculture Department determines the safety of food in an affected area. FEMA makes longer-term decisions similar to what it would do in an earthquake or other such disaster, Barrett says.

During the Hatch emergency exercise, NRC employees filled the operations center. Two of them manned direct phone lines to the Hatch facility. At the other end of the room, another employee monitored the conversations using headphones and jotted down situation updates on a dry-erase board. In the middle of the room, NRC technical experts huddled around a conference table, poring over continuously updated plant data. Nearby, another team of experts discussed radioactive fallout risks.

The teams' assessments flowed to the NRC's decision-making executive team, which had gathered in an adjacent glass-enclosed room. A liaison team disseminated information to outside agencies and the public.

At 9:48 a.m., the nuclear power plant declared a site area emergency. A 10:33 a.m. a message on operations center monitors announced that National Security Adviser Anthony Lake had requested a briefing. At 10:48 a.m., NBC's Nightline program requested an interview.

By 11:01 a.m., the plant upgraded its classification from site emergency to general emergency, the most serious status. Area schools had already begun to evacuate. The NRC initiated a Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan. The operations center dispatched an Energy Department Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center advance party, which was expected to arrive at the disaster site at 8 p.m. A full radiological team would be there by 7 a.m. the following day. Also, FEMA activated an emergency support team at its headquarters.

Reports continued to appear on the monitors. "11:58: Evacuation is confirmed to be under way." By 12:07 p.m., the NRC's site team had arrived at the plant. The operations center handed control over to the site team, and the atmosphere at the center began to ease up. People started to pack up their files and make small talk. To the casual observer, it appeared as if the Georgia nuclear plant's emergency, though still unresolved, had almost been forgotten.

Planned Response

A test progresses just as a real accident would. First, a phone call from a utility comes in to the NRC's operations center, which is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. (The current operations center has been in use since May 1994. Its numerous improvements over the previous center include special lighting to keep the operators more alert and advanced computer systems to improve the information flow between NRC teams.)

Depending on what is happening at the nuclear plant, the utility classifies a situation an unusual event, an alert, a site area emergency or a general emergency. The situation may be reclassified as more data becomes available.

In 1994, the NRC handled three real alerts, and in July 1995 it responded to two in one day. Three site area emergencies have been handled since the advent of the classification system in 1981. No public evacuations have been ordered since the accident at Three Mile Island.

The NRC's response to an event depends on its classification and circumstances. The lowest level is standby, at which point the level of danger is still unclear. Initial activation means the situation is serious enough to dispatch a regional NRC team to the site. Expanded activation requires a site team to take over the operation from the headquarters teams. Deactivation means the crisis is over and the commission conducts follow-up activities.

The commission has made some changes over the years. After Hurricane Andrew caused major equipment damage to a plant in Florida, it began to back up live telephone links to the plants with portable telecommunications equipment.

During emergency exercises, the NRC frequently hosts observers from other agencies or foreign governments. Alexander Kordiuk, head of the Ukrainian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Nuclear Safety's regulation and emergency planning department in Kiev observed the Hatch exercise. "Chernobyl showed the need for this kind of coordination between federal agencies," Kordiuk said. "The results of Chernobyl would have been less severe-people would have been evacuated quicker, the government involvement would have been coordinated better, and the emergency reaction would have been swifter," he said.

"The most important thing I learned [from the Hatch exercise] is that you need to have a federal-level agency for an emergency response," said Alexei Kovalevsky, Kordiuk's counterpart from Russia. "I was particularly impressed by the good communication between various participants in the exercise."

Following the Hatch plant's exercise, NRC's operations center reviewed the events in a debriefing session. Some inconsistencies were found in the data reported by the plant, and the communication standard had not been ideal. Yet overall, things appeared to have gone smoothly. Only one decision remained, an NRC team member noted: "Would NRC send someone to appear on Nightline that evening?"

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