Dispelling Myths about Emergency Planning for Nuclear Power Plants

According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), commercial operation of nuclear power plants in the United States “have resulted in no physical injuries or fatalities from exposure to radiation from the plants among members of the US public.” Still, the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) require “reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the event of a radiological emergency” before a nuclear power plant is licensed to operate. These regulatory agencies also require demonstration of these assurances through periodic exercises.

Emergency managers and organizational leaders at nuclear power plants are responsible for the creation of these emergency response plan. They should work with federal, state, and local officials to design and test their emergency plans regularly to ensure they are effective in protecting the health of employees and the public. Radiation safety training is an integral part of these plans, ensuring that all personnel are prepared to handle radiological emergencies effectively.

Minimizing harm from radiological emergencies requires a thorough emergency plan

Although there are many resources about emergency planning for nuclear power plants available through federal, state, and local agencies, many myths persist about this process. Below are nine common misconceptions about radiological emergency planning and the truths about these myths:

Power plants should attempt to address an emergency by itself before notifying officials

In the case of an emergency, nuclear power plants are required to notify state and local officials within fifteen minutes; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should be notified as soon as possible after that. Under the Incident Command System, it is the job of first responders to determine top priorities, not the job of the site itself, and therefore notification should be your first step.

What happens next depends on a variety of factors, including the severity and type of emergency, the plant’s location, and how the situation is likely to progress. After notifying officials, they might give the okay for an organization to fix the problem on its own. Otherwise, local, state, or federal agencies might be brought in to help.

One method of fire protection is enough

Fire protection in nuclear power plants should be built on the concept of defense-in-depth. This means having multiple levels of administrative controls, fire protection features and systems, and safe shutdown capacities. The goal is not just to be able to rapidly detect, control, and extinguish fires, but also to prevent fires before they happen. It is also imperative to shut down the facilities safely if the fire cannot be extinguished.

The first line of defense is fire prevention. This includes safely using and storing combustible material away from important operational areas and controlling potential ignition sources, such as welding or high-temperature equipment. You should monitor these materials and activities closely, and ensure that they are only conducted in areas with proper fire prevention and fire-fighting equipment.

All nuclear power plants must have automatic heat, smoke, and fire detection systems that will work even during a power loss. These systems should be independent and redundant, including pressurized water and chemical extinguishers, built-in barriers to seal off effected areas, and a trained fire brigade to help fight fires.

Only the NRC needs to approve my emergency plan

Every emergency plan for a nuclear power plant needs to be approved by the NRC in order for that plant to receive a license for operating from the federal government. This review focuses on onsite emergency procedures and plans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates approval of offsite emergency procedures and plans with state and local officials; emergency plans must be approved by the state in which a facility operates. The NRC then reviews FEMA’s findings and makes the final approval on emergency plans.

Talking to the media will cause more harm than good

While it is true that the media can sometimes be alarmist, it’s important to get accurate information to the public as quickly as possible. This is especially important if people need to be evacuated or shelter-in-place. Media channels, particularly TV news stations, will have the reach needed to make sure that everyone has the information they need to stay safe.

It’s also important to talk to the media to make sure information stays accurate. When information isn’t coming from people “in the know,” such as power plant officials, local or state government, or first responders, the media might turn to speculation, which can incite panic. By staying in touch with the media, your organization can take and keep control of the story the public is hearing. It is also imperative that those responsible for communicating with the media and the public utilize the principles of risk communication to ensure all parties can make the best decisions in regard to their health.

Once an emergency plan is approved, it doesn’t need to be updated

Emergency plans are constantly evolving, based on new science and new threats. For example, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, nuclear power plant emergency plans were updated to include a greater focus on protecting against terrorist attacks. NRC emergency procedures were also integrated with Department of Homeland Security procedures, to ensure better coordination and response. Plans are also upgraded and redesigned through lessons learned from real-life emergencies or drills, as well as new technology or new science related to nuclear power plants.

Each plant also needs to test its emergency plan with a drill every two years. These drills are reviewed by the NRC and FEMA and should exercise the full emergency plan, including the involvement of offsite responders. These drills help plants refine their emergency plans, find problems with their plans, and keep all involved parties ready to respond effectively.

Federal assistance will be available immediately after an emergency

Local, state, and plant emergency planners are responsible for actions during the first stages of a radiological emergency. First responders to the scene will set priorities for stopping the emergency and securing the area, such as evacuation or shutting down the plant. Trained personnel at the plant are responsible for notifying state and local officials and activating emergency procedures. Government officials are responsible for any actions that affect the public.

Depending on the severity of an emergency, federal assistance will generally not be available for a few days. This assistance can take a variety of forms, including guidance, supplies for the public, or an investigation into the emergency. In general, the goal of federal assistance is to fill in the gaps in state and local assistance, not to supplant it.

Life-saving medical attention should be delayed until complete decontamination of the patient

When someone is exposed to radiation, the first priority is to get them necessary treatment. By treating a patient as soon as possible, you can greater reduce the impact that radiation exposure might have. Decontamination measures can take place while getting a patient to the life-saving treatment they need. Removal of clothing can remove over 90 percent of superficial contamination, and this and other decontamination can be performed in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Decontamination procedures and the threshold for designating people clean enough to enter shelters should be determined as part of the emergency plan.

Evacuation should be recommended in the event of power plant releases

Depending on the release time, evacuation might not be the best recommendation. When the release is known to be about four hours or less (a “puff”) or well controlled by the facility, shelter-in-place procedures are usually the best option to protect the public.

If the release is longer, evacuation may be the best option. However, the evacuation zone depends on several factors, most notably weather patterns. Evacuation zones should be mapped to account for potential wind shifts, the time of day, and special population groups that might be evacuated, such as schools in the area.

Once on scene, the federal coordinating agency (CA) is in charge of all emergency response actions

Even when a federal agency arrives at the scene of a nuclear power plant emergency, the local on-scene commander (OSC) remains in charge unless they relinquish control. Emergency plans should allow for coordination of state, local, and plant resources, including fire departments, police, government officials, and plant workers. The on-scene commander will come from one of these groups, most likely local or plant responders.

Because local responders should know the area around the plant well, they are best equipped to determine the appropriate protective actions. The role of the federal government – and to some extent state responders – is to provide resources when local resources are exhausted or to fill in the gaps in resources, not to take control of the situation.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Radiological Emergency Management . An On- campus program  designed to Protect the public from harm during a radiological event. To learn more about this opportunity, click here.