Peninsula-area jurisdictions test response to emergency at Surry Nuclear Power Station

Sarah J. Ketchum

Peninsula-area governments and public safety agencies participated in a full-scale drill on Tuesday to test capabilities to respond to a radiological emergency.

An incident at the nuclear power station in Surry County could potentially expose people within a 10-mile radius to harmful radiation. Help from multiple jurisdictions and agencies would be needed during an emergency to help limit exposure and potentially evacuate residents, officials said.

The counties of Charles City, Isle of Wight, James City, New Kent, Surry, York and the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson and Williamsburg participate in the exercise. The Federal Emergency Management Agency-graded drill is performed every two years, according to Newport News city spokeswoman Kim Lee.

"Of course, we do all this with hopes that it never, ever happens," she said.

Emergency Operations Center

Local officials received an initial mock notification at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday alerting them of a "minor problem" at the facility. The first Report of Emergency didn't give specific details about the incident, but the "Alert" status prompted officials to activate the Emergency Operation Centers and begin following the radiological emergency response plan, Lee said.

A follow-up report stated that a fuel assembly was damaged, but the incident remained under "Alert" status. Over the next few hours, Surry officials heightened the status to a "Site Area Emergency," indicating a more serious problem, and eventually to a "General Emergency," warning officials that radioactive matter could be released outside the station site.

The emergency report provides officials with information to help prepare to respond to an incident, such as wind speed and direction. The data helps officials see which areas could be impacted. Localities are divided into zones. For example, the northern areas of Newport News are included in the 10-mile radius and divided into zones 14, 15 and 16.

At the Emergency Operations Center in Newport News, officials from various city departments set up a command structure to organize the response. While local officials must prepare to respond, they wait for the governor to approve any action, Lee said.

In the field

At Newport News Fire Station No. 6, the department's hazardous materials team gathered with law enforcement members to prepare to work in the field. If an evacuation were to be ordered, police would close streets and direct traffic outside the evacuation zone(s). Affected residents would be sent to designated Evacuation Assembly Centers to test if their bodies or vehicles were exposed to radiation.

Acting as the Exposure Control Officer, Newport News Fire Department Lt. Travis Veach explained to personnel their documenting procedures and devices that monitor radiation exposure. Personal protective gear also would be issued during the briefing if it were a true emergency, he said.

Veach also followed the radiological emergency plan, which provides checklists and addresses potential situations and complications. The plan helps officials stay organized and respond quickly, he said.

"We want to limit the human and environmental impact," he said.

Public information

A public information branch of the EOC sent out mock news releases and communicated with the city's 311 center. The 311 staff received multiple mock calls from residents worried there was a terrorist attack. Eventually, they sent out a release letting the public know that was false.

"We worked to try to dispel those rumors," Lee said.

While waiting on the governor's recommendations, Newport News city officials learned of a separate mock incident that would impact traffic and resources. The bridge on Fort Eustis Boulevard, between I-64 and Warwick Boulevard, had collapsed.

Public information officials disseminated that information, while noting the governor had not ordered any zones in Newport News to evacuate. However, the city's centers would receive evacuees from other localities.

Reed Fowler, director of Newport News Public Works, acted as the director of the city's emergency center during the drill. He said, overall, he thinks it went well.

"It allows us to test our plans and prepare for a real event, should it occur," he said.

FEMA will present preliminary findings of the exercise in a public meeting at 10 a.m. Friday. It will be held at the Newport News Marriott at City Center, at 740 Town Center Drive. The presentation is open to the public.

Ketchum can be reached by phone at 757-247-7478.

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