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State, partners tests skills at nuclear emergency exercise

State, partners tests skills at nuclear emergency exercise

In March, the Washington Emergency Management Division participated in a nuclear emergency three-day exercise that spanned the state and involved local, state and federal partners.

The drill centered on the Columbia Generating Station located about 10 miles north of Richland not far from the Hanford Site. Columbia Generating Station is the northwest's only commercial nuclear energy facility and is the third largest electricity generator in Washington state, behind Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. It’s owned and operated by Energy Northwest, a consortium of public utility districts and municipalities.

As a requirement for the nuclear facility, agencies practice what happens if a radiation release were to occur – a rare incident, but a serious one that requires training and strict procedures. Every year, agencies come together to ensure at least some level of training is done. And then, every eight years, like this time, a more advanced exercise is done graded by FEMA.

At this point, no major issues were identified from the recent exercise.

In addition to the Washington Emergency Management Division, participants included Energy Northwest, Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, Adams, Grant and Yakima counties; the state departments of Agriculture, Health, Transportation, the State Patrol as well as agencies in Oregon and federal agencies, including FEMA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The exercise consisted of a radiological incident for which immediate decisions for effective use of protective actions are required -- actions such as evacuations for some areas, or staying home and closing vents in others. That was day one. On day two, important decisions would then have to be made once the simulated release of radiation was stopped. Where would the plume of radiation go? If residents were to do an evacuation, would they be allowed to return to their homes? If not, how long would residents have to relocate from their homes? What happens to the agriculture grown in the area? And what can be done to protect the public from ingesting contaminated food?

The exercise also included a third day geared to helping local jurisdictions, as well.

Every disaster – whether manmade or natural – has questions that jurisdictions have to consider, and exercises like this one prompts officials to not just ask these important questions but ensure they have policies and procedures in place before a disaster were to really occur.

In addition to practicing at the state Emergency Operations Center on Camp Murray and the Energy Northwest plant, a joint information center was created in Richland utilizing mock press conferences and employees pretending to be media. One of the key elements FEMA reviews is to ensure that there’s a process to get information out to the public. It’s about getting the right message, to the right people, at the right time.

Franklin County and Benton County both do regular outreach with their residents, including delivering a key calendar every year that has information about evacuation routes, emergency planning zones and where folks can get information. There are also sirens in the community for use in emergencies – which are tested regularly.

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