Emergency Exercises: valuable? Or mostly PR?

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is inclined to boast about the big May 2014 emergency exercise they held at Darlington last May (2014). At a recent Durham Nuclear Health Committee meeting - the one held on January 23/15 (meeting minutes will eventually be posted here, several months after the meeting) - Jim Coles from OPG gave a long presentation about this major event that took place last May 26, 27 & 28th.

(We could back up here a little & say more about the Durham Nuclear Health Committee itself. How infrequently any information about radioactivity, radioactive emissions & human health ever comes up in these meetings, for example. But never mind. You should attend one of these meetings for yourself and see how they work. The meetings are not at all well publicized (you kind of have to know the committee exists in order to know it exists, if you see what I mean; it's a very very very quiet little committee) but you can find the schedule here, or at least the date of the next meeting, & yes, members of the public are indeed permitted to attend.)

Just for the record, this year's meeting schedule is

  • January 23rd
  • April 17th
  • June 19th
  • September 11th
  • November 20th.

(DNA members attend these meetings regularly; that's how I know the schedule for the year.)

The major thing I wanted to share in this posting (now less than a week from the 4th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster; the ever-ongoing Fukushima disaster) is a long quotation from the Union of Concerned Scientists book Fukushima – The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan G. Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

(You can find a review of the book here.  Later posting about the book here.)        

The book is very thorough, very detailed, in some places quite "technical," but certainly well worth a read. So much has been learned, is now understood, about the real causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. How human error, unwillingness to spend the money to construct the recommended higher sea wall, and above all, collusion between the regulator and TEPCO, resulted in this horrific accident. (Excellent 88-page report here goes into great detail & spells out the role of "regulatory capture.")

The authors of this book are very clear in their assessment of the value of occasional emergency exercises held to supposedly prove that all will run smoothly in the event of a nuclear accident.

[NRC refers to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. regulator of all things nuclear; the American counterpart to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, or CNSC.]

“In 1980, the NRC required that plant owners draw up evacuation plans for the public within ten miles of each plant. (Compare that with the NRC’s recommendation that U.S. citizens within fifty miles of Fukushima be advised to leave.) It also mandated that biennial emergency exercises be conducted at each nuclear plant site. During the exercise, a plant accident is simulated and the Federal Emergency Management Agency evaluates the steps local, state, and federal officials take to protect the public from radiation. In parallel, the NRC evaluates how well plant workers respond to the simulated accident and work with off-site officials.

The biennial exercises are better than nothing, but not by much. In the simulation, winds are assumed to blow in only one direction, conveniently but unrealistically limiting the number of people in harm’s way. The evacuations are only simulated, so there is no way to tell if the complicated logistics of evacuating all homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, and prisons could be successfully carried out. Instead, the exercises merely verify that officials have the right phone numbers and contractual agreements for the buses to carry evacuees and the hospitals to treat the injured and contaminated. [emphasis mine].

These exercises only provide an illusion of adequate preparation. As the Fukushima experience painfully demonstrated, rapidly moving people out of harm’s way in the midst of a nuclear crisis is exceedingly difficult, yet critical.

Although the various Three Mile Island reviews converged on the need for major nuclear safety upgrades, there was no consensus on how wide-ranging the reforms should be. At the heart of the safety debate were these questions: Should the reforms address only the issues raised by the last accident? Or would that be tantamount to fighting the last war? If the next accident were triggered by a completely different event and proceeded along a different track, the failure of a too-narrow approach would be evident. Because of the NRC’s regulatory focus on design-basis accidents that followed a certain script, it had never taken a comprehensive look at the universe of beyond-design-basis accidents – that is, everything else that could go wrong – or the need to protect against them.”

From Fukushima – The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan G. Stranahan and the Union of Concerned Scientists.           <page 152-153>

Since most people are not liable to read the book, and could naively just accept at face value OPG/CNSC's confident assurances about the readiness of nuclear industry & provincial/regional officials to handle a major disaster, it seems a good idea to share this assessment from recognized experts.

Finally, I would point you to a collection of news articles about last year's big emergency exercise, & remind you that members of the public (the very citizens who would actually be most affected by a nuclear disaster, large or "small") have little or no idea how they are expected to respond in the event of an accident.

These are some things to bear in mind as we contemplate the reality that the Fukushima nuclear disaster that began four years ago now, is a very very very long way from over.