Monday, June 20, 2011

Hanford drill tests emergency preparedness teams

By Dieter Bohrmann, Communications Consultant, Nuclear Waste Program

Environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear site is complex and potentially hazardous. The U.S. Department of Energy as well as numerous state and local agencies have a stake in ensuring the work is done safely and protectively. A large accident at Hanford could threaten the health of not only workers, but potentially local and regional residents, the environment and even the economy.
On June 16, Hanford’s annual multi-agency emergency drill gave first responders another chance to test their readiness for an incident at the site. The players included the state Emergency Management Division, the Department of Health, Ecology, Benton, Franklin, and Grant counties and the state of Oregon.

This year’s scenario involved a fuel truck that crashed at the Plutonium Finishing Plant. An ensuing fire destroyed 12 drums full of radioactive waste causing a release to the environment and sending much of the site into “take cover” mode.

The basement of the federal building in Richland buzzed with activity as officials monitored the event and collected information from the field. Just down the hall in the Joint Information Center (JIC), public information officers hustled to sort out truth from rumor and issue timely and accurate press releases. An early report of possible gunshots at the accident site led to rumors that the incident may have been intentional. The “popping sounds” thought to be gunshots turned out to be waste drums being breached by the fire.

In this scenario, Ecology’s first step would be making sure staff was accounted for and alerting management in Lacey. Our regulatory role would likely come later, as we assessed the release of waste to the ground or water and worked with the Department of Energy on cleanup plans.

At the debrief session after the exercise, most participants were positive about how it went. Oregon’s public information officer commented that a couple of hours into the drill he felt like it was the real thing. I think others felt the same.

It’s impossible to plan for all incidents, but these exercises are an excellent chance to bring multiple agencies together to see what works and where improvements are needed. While the chances of a major incident at Hanford are remote, it’s important that Ecology and other response teams – while hoping for the best – stay prepared for the worst.

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