FEMA: Hampton Roads, Dominion handled nuclear plant "emergency" well

Contact Reportertdietrich@dailypress.com

Whenever federal agencies put a community and its nuclear power plant through a simulated emergency to test how well they respond, they like to shake things up and throw a monkey wrench in the mix.

On Tuesday, for instance, as the Surry Power Station underwent a fake emergency involving a fake radiation plume, a fake traffic accident was tossed in that tied up an evacuation route in Isle of Wight County.

But then real life intruded. That same morning, an actual police emergency erupted in York County where a gunman shot up an auto paint store, wounding a man, then barricaded himself inside for several hours.

So, while some members of the York County Emergency Response Team soldiered on with the simulated nuclear reactor accident, others were lobbing real rounds of gas and an explosive into the store, then immobilizing and arresting a suspect.

"The Emergency Operations Center was dealing with that and, at the same time, remained focused on the exercise," said Thomas Scardino, Technical Hazards Branch chief of Federal Emergency Management Agency Region III, based in Philadelphia. "So that was real kudos to those agencies for handling real-life emergencies."

Isle of Wight authorities likewise handled their fake blocked evacuation route with aplomb, he said.

Scardino was at the Newport News Marriott at City Center Friday morning to help deliver a preliminary assessment to the public of Tuesday's nuclear reactor exercise. FEMA is still compiling data from more than 70 evaluators stationed at nearly 50 locations in Hampton Roads, he said, but overall agency officials are satisfied with what they witnessed.

"We saw great coordination and combined effort to protect the public, had something actually happened at the plant," Scardino said.

He couldn't provide immediate specifics on areas of weakness, he said, because "everything's preliminary."

Ed Collins, manager of fleet emergency preparedness at Dominion Energy, said the company programmed its power station training simulator to set up the emergency exercise.

"We simulated a situation where we had a rupture of a tube in one of our steam generators," Collins explained. "And that allowed us to put some radioactive fluid into the steam generator. And then we boiled that off and let it go into the atmosphere through a stuck open valve. And that's what gave us the 'radiological release' that allowed the off-site authorities to exercise their emergency plans."

He said local Dominion employees, those in corporate offices in Richmond and others stationed with the Virginia Emergency Operations Center effectively implemented the company's response plan, from assessing the situation, classifying the emergency and communicating with the state.

"There were no critical errors that need to be corrected immediately," Collins said. "But there are always enhancements, whether that's through additional training or better procedure work or just overall knowledge and proficiency. That's the reason we do these drills, is to be able to give members of our emergency response organizations an opportunity to practice. ... Because you don't want the first time that these individuals work together to be during an actual emergency."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had a team of five inspectors in the area to evaluate Dominion Energy's response.

"We did not have any significant findings," said Steven Sanchez, lead inspector from NRC's Region II Atlanta office. "We know there's a lot of hard work and effort that goes into pulling off a large graded exercise such as this, and we were able to walk away with a reasonable assurance that, had this been an actual event, Dominion and Surry Power Station would have been able to (execute) an emergency plan to protect the public's health and safety."

FEMA puts every nuclear reactor in the country and surrounding jurisdictions through their paces every two years with a different simulated emergency. In 2015, for instance, the Virginia Operations Plan Exercise at Surry involved a mock armed incursion by six gunmen who broke into and damaged a portion of the nuclear facility before they were overpowered by an on-site security force. Other VOPEX simulations have involved extreme weather events and earthquakes.

Participating jurisdictions in the exercise were Surry and Isle of Wight counties, Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson, Williamsburg, James City County, York County, New Kent County and Charles City County.

NRC will post its inspection reports on the exercise within 30 days on its website at nrc.gov. FEMA's report to the NRC will be posted on the same site within 90 days.

Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.

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