Three Mile Island EMERGENCY DRILL Leaves One Doubting or “Tales from the Crypt-o-grams of FEMA”

by Scott Portzline

The recent emergency drill at Three Mile Island has left me scratching my head and wondering about the initial assessment by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the thoroughness and integrity of the drill.

Most of the questions I asked were not answered by any of the numerous agencies at the April 19th public meeting here in Harrisburg. Most notably, the PA Bureau of Radiation Protection was not present, so I could not get an answer to this question: “How many people are on the two teams which are charged with monitoring radiation levels in the field during an emergency at TMI?” No one had any idea, although a few people went to great lengths to describe how comprehensive the State's response would be.

If those teams total less than a dozen, then that needs to be fixed right away. A satisfactory response would be at least three dozen. Why? Because the 10 mile emergency preparedness zone can't be adequately covered with less than that, let alone from even greater distances – that's something we needed here in 1979 and was clearly needed in Fukushima Japan. Add to that the need for three shifts during a 24 hours period, and you can see how problems could develop especially after a few days if understaffed teams are tired or overburdened. So the question remains on the table, are the planned responses sufficient?

Another example of questionable planning is the location for Dauphin County's only decontamination center which is at the Williams Valley High School (in Schuylkill County). I asked if there was anybody in the room who thought that those two lane roads could handle the traffic during an evacuation and its accompanying shadow evacuations (the spontaneous evacuation of people who are outside of the prescribed evacuation area.)

This is point of major contention. The latest report from the US General Accountability Office criticized the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its methods used for emergency planning. Sometimes you gotta love the lengthy titles from the GAO - “NRC Needs to Better Understand Likely Public Response to Radiological Incidents at Nuclear Power Plants” April 2013.

FEMA said it would not discuss the new GAO report. Then I was told FEMA doesn't discuss individual communities. Yet they had just gone over, line by line, a lengthy list of communities and school districts involved in the plans. It was like a parade of dogs and ponies and the public was supposed to be impressed but not ask probing questions on the pedigrees. Sometime bureaucracies act like a puppy mill, the lead dogs are gettin' busy but leave behind an unhealthy mess.

When I asked about the computer software being used for radioactive plume projections, once again, no one could name the method or assure me that it could handle multiple plumes and radioactive source terms. The reason this is an important detail is that a hypothetical hostile force (the TMI scenario was a hostile force drill), could likely attack the reactor, the spent fuel pool, and at some plants the nuclear spent fuel dry casks. Fukushima showed this can happen by accident. Fukushima responders could not project or understand what was occurring.

An NRC emergency preparedness chief inspector tried to explain that the NRC's software has the capability, but he could not name the software program. All emergency radiological plume projections use one of the handful of commonly used computer programs and anyone who does this for a living ought to be able to name what tools he depend upon. The utility is the entity which is responsible for plume projections (one of the most important parameters for ordering an evacuation) but no one from Exelon could answer that question either.

One problem that has been occurring at US nuclear plant drill scenarios is that responders got used to the “correct response” being to order an evacuation. Drill analysis showed that sometimes this order was given too early. The NRC had talked about adjusting the drills so that this problem would not recur. I asked what adjustments were made to this week's drill. Surprise, surprise! No one from the NRC claimed familiarity with the concept even though I recognized a few faces who attended the meeting where it had been discussed.

Later, I turned to those present and said, “Now I know what it's like to be a legislator on Capitol Hill trying to get answers from a bunch of hostile witnesses.”

So how prepared are we? I'm certain we're not as well off as we are told to believe. Get involved, go to meeting and ask questions. Where are the younger people? We need you all. But be forewarned, at the FEMA meeting 2 years ago the public was allowed to ask one question per individual. I went first, “What was the drill scenario about?” The FEMA leader said, “We don't discuss that.” I asked another question but was told I had exceeded the limit and that was the end of the meeting! Well not really, the leader asked if there were any other questions. No one bothered to ask anything. That's when it was all over. Later reporters told me what a bizarre meeting it had been and that FEMA should have just issued a press release.

I'm reminded of what former NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky wrote in the July 2008 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “For all its talk about openness, the NRC's interaction with the public can best be described as repressive tolerance.” He added, ”Nothing has occupied its commissioners as much as sidelining public hearing participants from the nuclear licensing process. ….The commission has drastically curtailed the interveners' right to cross-examination and access to documents.”

The same could be said about FEMA as far as I'm concerned. At still another meeting almost 3 years ago, I was told I would not be able to give any comments. That's not what the rules said. More than two hours of phone calls in the days before the meeting gave me no relief. On the day of the meeting, when I placed the published rules in front of the FEMA meeting leader, he refused to look at it!