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Dry run for disaster

In the first drill of its kind in the nation since Sept. 11, a simulated nuclear crisis at Florida Power's Crystal River nuclear plant will test local and state officials' readiness.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002


CRYSTAL RIVER -- From his office off U.S. 19, John Stephenson is plotting disaster. His plan, crafted in secret over the past six months with the help of some well-placed associates, could bring Crystal River to its knees.

Under the scheme, a plume of radioactive particles will escape from the nuclear plant north of town. Carried by the wind as far as 50 miles away, it will contaminate crops, livestock, water supplies and the unlucky people in its path.

Emergency sirens will pierce the air. Entire neighborhoods will be evacuated, the roads packed. "We don't hold back," Stephenson said.

His is not the work of a terrorist. Stephenson is director of emergency preparedness for Florida Power, and the fictional scenario outlined above -- none of which will actually happen -- is part of a drill to evaluate how local and state officials would react in the event of nuclear crisis.

The tests, scheduled for May 13 and 14 and again on May 29 and 30, will cover everything from reactor control room operators' ability to identify problems and the mobilization of local and state emergency centers, to the notification of the public, traffic control, sheltering and cleanup of radioactive fallout.

The scope of this dry run extends far beyond Crystal River. Emergency workers will act as if radioactive material has spread over a 50-mile area. It will be the first broad test for Florida Power in six years and the first of its kind in the nation since Sept. 11.

Florida Power and the operators of the nation's 102 other nuclear plants have been conducting drills for years, and for the most part, they have drawn little notice.

Now, nuclear energy is in the public spotlight more than ever because of the events nearly eight months ago in New York City and Washington, D.C.

"Sept. 11 has not changed anything in terms of the specific requirements we have, but everybody has a heightened sense of the value of a good response system," said Mary Hudak, spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will monitor the drills along with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The problem emerges

Sometime during business hours on May 29, six operators in a simulation control room at Florida Power's training center on Venable Street will encounter an unsurmountable challenge.

Without warning, something will go wrong with the reactor. Within a few fleeting moments, the operators will have to determine the severity of the problem.

It may start out as an "unusual event," a minor problem such as a hurricane warning or a small fire in a building outside the massive concrete and steel building that houses the reactor.

Over time, though, key components of the mock reactor will fail until the situation reaches a "general emergency." If this were an actual emergency, radioactive material would be released into open air.

The full details of the scenario are kept secret from participants until after the drill, but officials have said the problem will be caused by equipment failure, not terrorist activity, such as a jetliner crashing into the reactor containment building.

Plant operators will have 15 minutes to call the Division of Emergency Management in Tallahassee, which is directly linked with officials in Levy and Citrus counties.

The local governments will activate their own emergency operation centers as well as dispatch certain officials to the Venable Street office.

There, they will go to work in a war room that contains rows of desks with telephones at each seat. Three large projection screens are at the front of the room. On a recent afternoon, two of the screens displayed vital plant data, a complex array of numbers, while the third showed the Weather Channel.

Because it is a drill, state emergency personnel will already be in Crystal River. They will not be allowed in the building until the call goes through, however.

Experts with the state Bureau of Radiation Control will assist Florida Power in tracking the mock radiation plume. Field teams will collect air samples and look for deposits of radioactive material.

After determining protective action is needed, a Florida Power official will take county and state representatives into a separate room and make recommendations to evacuate certain areas around the plant. The NRC will also make suggestions.

But the decision rests with the state and county. Some evacuation will be necessary under the scenario and notices will be prepared for (but not actually sent to) about 20 local and regional media radio and television stations.

There are 40 warning sirens across the 10-mile radius around the plant, 28 in Citrus and 12 in Levy, and these will be tested. A computer at the 911 center will confirm they were activated, but no sound will be emitted.

During these initial moments, federal monitors will note communication between the various groups and the resulting decisions. At the same time, the NRC will review how Florida Power analyzes the problem and comes up with ways to stop the radiation leak.

"Our folks take these pretty seriously," Stephenson said. "We want to stress our emergency responses to the point where we can detect and identify any areas we can improve."

With evacuation comes problems associated with a frenzied public, eager to get far from the plant. In the event of a real emergency, traffic control stations would be set up at the major roads out of town.

For the sake of the drill, a station will be established at the National Guard Armory on Venable on May 13. As a few cars drive through, FEMA officials will observe how emergency workers, covered in special suits to protect against radiation, monitor vehicles for contamination.

Spots on cars that could pick up radioactive material, such as grills and wheel wells, will be scanned with Geiger counters. Some of the cars will be sent under a special shower, made from PVC pipe, and then remonitored.

Drivers and passengers will also be tested. If positive, they will be directed to Withlacoochee Technical Institute on State Road 44 in Inverness, where showers are available.

WTI is one of several evacuation shelters that would be used in a real emergency. Florida Power publishes a complete list for Citrus and Levy counties in an emergency planning brochure it publishes and distributes annually. Similar information is listed in the phone book.

The shelter test will be held May 14. At WTI, the American Red Cross will register a handful of mock residents and sheriff's deputies will be on hand to provide crowd control. FEMA will observe registration and whether there are adequate supplies.

FEMA will also review the evacuation plans of schools in Citrus and how local officials would care for children. While students have marched onto buses in the past, that activity is not planned for this drill.

Front-page news

When Florida Power conducted a drill in October 2000, few people took notice. The utility, state and Citrus and Levy counties had high marks, reaffirming the view there was little to worry about.

Sept. 11 challenged that perception and made nuclear power front-page news. If jets could topple the nation's symbol of financial strength, could they be used against a power plant?

Fears have risen to such a level in New York that some residents are calling for the decommissioning of the Indian Point nuclear complex, 40 miles from Manhattan. Activists say the evacuation plan is hopeless.

The utility responds by saying the fears are overblown, that the danger is really contained to a 2-mile radius around the plant.

Florida Power officials echo those sentiments.

"Almost all releases are not going to be life and health threatening," Stephenson said. "But it's an emotional issue, and that's something we all understand."

Even a company town like Crystal River, where it seems everyone works at Florida Power or knows someone who does, found itself questioning its sense of security.

In the moments after the terrorism attacks, Florida Power insisted its security was adequate. Still, it drew criticism when it rejected the assistance of the National Guard.

The utility has made several security enhancements since then, such as adding concrete barriers and fortifying its armed force.

Showing how involved the area had become in the national debate, the state in February ordered 784,000 radiation blocking pills -- two for each of the 392,000 people who live near the Crystal River, St. Lucie and Turkey Point power plants.

While fake pills -- M&Ms or hard candy -- may be given to emergency workers in the drill, the county will not test a widespread distribution of potassium iodide, known by its chemical symbol KI.

That's because the state has still not devised distribution protocols, said Bill Hunt, the county's coordinator of radiological emergency planning.

Adding to the sense of anxiety over nuclear power are nationwide concerns over the structural integrity of the plants.

Officials were shocked earlier this year when it was disclosed that acid had eaten a gaping hole in the reactor vessel head of the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio.

Less than an inch of stainless steel held back the highly pressurized water in the reactor. The loss could have compromised the plant's cooling system, which prevents meltdown.

In Crystal River, a small crack around one of the control rod nozzles that penetrate the 80-ton vessel head was found and repaired during a refueling outage last fall. Florida Power plans to replace the 25-year-old head in 2003, but insists the problem was minor compared to Davis-Besse.

While some volunteer firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers will participate in the drill, the public at large will probably not notice the commotion.

Asked whether it would make sense to build on the greater public awareness generated by the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, Florida Power and the Citrus County Sheriff's Office said a large-scale drill would be impractical.

An obvious obstacle, they said, is getting people to voluntarily disrupt their day for a drill. Evacuation could result in an accident and raise liability questions. "We don't want to alarm anyone," Stephenson said.

"The state of Florida knows how to evacuate," Florida Power spokesman Mac Harris added, citing the annual scramble to avoid hurricanes and wildfires.

Stephenson said Florida Power has made a more concerted effort to educate the public about emergency plans. He said he has spoken to numerous groups in recent months about the issue.

Moreover, the law officers, fire and other emergency workers who take part in the drills are members of the community and share this information with their neighbors, he said.

"I really think we have engaged a lot of the community," Stephenson said. "And we have for 20 years."

Assessing the damage

May 30 is known as the recovery phase of the drill and will encompass a larger area. While the 10-mile radius around the nuclear plant is said to be most at risk in the event of a disaster, the radioactive particles could spread much farther. The federal government has established a 50-mile "ingestion zone" around nuclear power plants in which crops, water supplies and livestock could be tainted.

"The skin provides a reasonable barrier, but if you eat or drink radioactive particles, they get into your organs where they can have significant effects," said John Williamson, environmental manager for the state Bureau of Radiation Control.

The radius around the Crystal River nuclear plant includes parts of eight counties, excluding Citrus and Levy: Alachua, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Pasco and Sumter.

In a real emergency, the Department of Energy would supply a plane with wings equipped with radiation detectors. The plane will not be used in the drill, but the federal government will supply state and local officials with data as if a flyover were conducted.

Using that information, the state will dispatch field monitoring teams to certain areas within the ingestion zone. They will take soil, water and crop samples as well as milk from a dairy and bring it to a mobile testing laboratory for further study.

Contaminated crops would be quarantined during an actual event. Also, checkpoints would be set up along Interstate 75 and other major arteries to inspect and stop tainted food products from leaving the area.

At the same time, officials will determine what to do with contaminated soil and property. At best, the radioactive particles will decay in a few days and pose no other problem. At worst, soil would have to be removed and homes destroyed.

Of course, no one knows for sure what the damage would be. A 1982 study prepared for the NRC estimated that a worst-case meltdown in Crystal River could cause 1,160 cancer deaths within one year of exposure, 6,630 injuries and $53-billion in damage.

In announcing a visit to Crystal River in January to allay fears of terrorism, NRC commissioner Nils J. Diaz cast doubt on the study. He said it was used to determine whether power plants should be built near major airports and was not a comprehensive look at the health effects.

"It might not be true," he said.

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