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Callaway Nuclear Plant emergency response plan passes test -- with room for improvement

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2011 - Ameren Missouri's Callaway Nuclear Plant passed but did not ace its 2011 federal disaster drill.

A newly released report for the May 11 exercise reveals three areas needing improvement. A previous drill found no issues. Even so, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has deemed the overall response plan satisfactory for protecting the public.

The FEMA report involves only facilities outside the nuclear plant. Separate Nuclear Regulatory Commission tests of the response on site were released in a July 18 report which noted several violations but "no significant findings," according to an NRC spokesperson.

Emergency response drills for the Ameren Missouri facility in Callaway County take place every other year in accordance with FEMA regulations. During the previous 2009 exercise, no so-called Areas Requiring Corrective Action (ARCA) were found. In 2007, two ARCAs and two planning issues were noted. The greatest number of ARCAs reported in any given exercise was nine in 1997. Regardless, after each past drill, the emergency response plan was also rated as effective.

Human Error, Simple Solutions

The mock emergency script for last May called for a fuel rod break that allowed radiation to leak from the plant. Hospitals, emergency operations centers, nursing homes and other facilities in Callaway County and other surrounding counties all responded as they would in an actual disaster.

Two ARCAs were noted at the Hearnes Reception and Care Center on the University of Missouri campus. The third involved the Montgomery County Emergency Operation Center. Each involved emergency workers and their knowledge of disaster information or equipment handling.

First issue: Instructions for use of a contamination monitor were not completely followed, which could have resulted in a failure to accurately detect radiation levels in someone who was exposed. The two emergency workers involved received on-the-spot retraining and the issue was closed.

Second issue: It took too long to monitor six evacuees at Hearnes for contamination. An additional staff member was added to close the issue.

Third issue: Staff of the Montgomery County Emergency Operations Center failed to include exceptions for particularly drastic events in quoting a limit of 1 rem of radiation allowed for emergency workers. State emergency authorities will schedule a training for the EOC employees. They will be tested at the next exercise in 2013.

Ameren issued a statement noting that the drills and the mistakes they uncover lead to improved preparedness.

"Although three areas for corrective action were identified, two have already been addressed, and the other will be addressed in the next biennial exercise. Improvement opportunities like those identified help make the emergency plans even better," the Ameren statement said.

The report concluded that the state's and local jurisdictions' emergency responses were "adequate to provide reasonable assurance that appropriate measures can be taken to protect the health and safety of the public in the event of a radiological emergency," and that the current plan will remain in effect.

Mike O'Connell, communications director for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said in an emailed statement that the report is good news for people who might be affected during an actual disaster:

"We were pleased to receive such a positive report and that, once again, the emergency response and preparedness plans of the state and local communities have been determined to have everything in place to protect the health and safety of the public."

Federal officials were not immediately available for comment.

The Callaway Nuclear Plant drill report for May 11 and previous reports can be found on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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