Archive for the ‘Nuclear Safety & Security’ Category

Wildfire, Emergency Response, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory

Friday, July 1st, 2011

By Eston D. Spain, associate emergency planner, IEM

Natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daichii nuclear-power plant, flooding at the Fort Calhoun and Cooper Nuclear Stations in Nebraska, and the Las Conchas wildfire outside of the Los Alamos National Laboratory remind us of the importance of emergency planning.

The wildfire outside of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) poses a threat, but state and local emergency response officials with years of wildfire experience and proven fire mitigation methods are on top of the situation. According to the InciWeb incident information system, firefighters began setting “back burns” on the west side of New Mexico State Route 501 as the fire was approaching the western boundary of LANL on Wednesday morning, June 29th. Those operations were declared complete by evening. The back burns were intended to remove available fuel from the Las Conchas Fire, which has consumed more than 60,000 acres on two sides of the 37-square-mile LANL site but scorched only one acre of Lab property itself.

Located in northern New Mexico about 35 miles (40 minutes drive) northwest of Santa Fe, the Laboratory has more than 1,800 buildings spread across 36 square miles; the facilities support research in some 50 different disciplines. According to Manny L’Esperance, Fire Safety Officer at LANL, “Los Alamos [is] landlocked atop mesas and surrounded by thousands of acres of forest—much of it dry and brittle—[it] is prime fire hazard territory.“

Wildfires are nothing new to LANL. Fire threats over the past 60 years include the 43,000-acre Cerro Grande fire that entered the town site and destroyed more than 400 homes in May 2000. Other significant fires occurred in 1996, 1977, and 1954.  As a result of these threats, the Los Alamos County Long-Term Recovery, Redevelopment, and Hazard Mitigation Plan was developed in 2001. This document identified a fuels modification program for unburned county lands as the highest priority item. Following the plan’s recommendations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided a grant to Los Alamos County for the es­tablishment of a fuel mitigation project. The FEMA grant enabled the County to immediately begin fuel reduction, treating a larger land area at a faster pace than it could have other­wise. This sort of awareness is critical in emergency preparedness planning. The County of Los Alamos and the LANL recognized that wildfire is always a threat. Through modeling and research, and by trial and error, the Los Alamos area is better prepared for their most likely hazard – wildfires. (more…)

Chemical Company Safety and Security Mandates with Feds on All Sides

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division, IEM

In a country with many regulatory measures, chemical companies face federal mandates from all sides. Such mandates include operational safety, increased security measures, emergency preparedness and reporting. Some of these mandates from different federal agencies are in conflict with one another. Every federal law related to hazardous materials has its own unique definition.  Common terms are hazardous materials (DOT and OSHA), hazardous substance (CERCLA), listed chemical (TRI and RMP) and listed and characteristic wastes (RCRA).


Radiation Exposure Explained: Putting Japan in Context

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Author: Justin Krometis, Transportation Analyst, IEM

This is a very good, easy-to-understand discussion of how much radiation we are typically exposed to and what the regulatory limits are, to help put into context the radiation levels being reported in Japan and even now in the US.

50 Mile Evacuation of Japan Nuclear Plant: Making Sense of Evacuation Distances

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Author: Jack Long, Director of CBRNE Preparedness, IEM

Since the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended on March 16 that US residents who are within 50 miles of the damaged Japanese nuclear power plants should evacuate, there has been a lot of speculation as to why the NRC would recommend such a large evacuation zone when the guidance for the plume exposure pathway emergency planning zone in the United States is for an area approximately 10 miles in radius.

First, the NRC recommendation was based on specific US guidelines for radiation exposure and some sophisticated calculations of the possible radiation doses based on what is known or suspected to be happening at all of the Fukushima plants, so this NRC recommendation is very site-specific and incident-specific whereas planning guidance is based on a wide range of possible accident scenarios.

Secondly, the US guidance for emergency planning for commercial nuclear plants never established 10 miles as any kind of outer limit or maximum evacuation zone.  Rather, the US guidance is designed to require highly detailed response plans and preparedness for a 10 mile radius zone since that area is at greatest risk and has the least amount of time to evacuate. (more…)

How Much of a Difference is there between Three Mile Island and the Fukushima Disaster?

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Author: Gary Hilbert, Emergency Management Specialist, IEM

In March/April 1979, I was part of a field team working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Pennsylvania gathering information on the emergency response effort in the area around the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power station as a result of the accident that occurred there.

The elevation of the Fukushima Daishi incident to a level 5 (out of 7) on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEM) International Nuclear Event Scale puts it on a par with TMI and the Windscale Fire that occurred in England in 1957.  There are only two incidents that have ranked higher in the IAEA scale:  Chernobyl and Kyshtym, both of which occurred in the Soviet Union and both of which involved release of large volumes of radioactive particulates.  As of March 18, this has not happened in Japan so the parallel ranking to TMI is probably justified.

I think there are also parallels between the TMI incident and what is currently happening at the Fukushima Daiichireactor complex in Japan. Specifically, I think it is valid to compare how officials communicate(ed) with the public about the nature of the emergency, what is being done, and most important, what the public needs to do to ensure their own safety is critical to ensuring a good outcome. (more…)

What will we in the U.S. learn from the events in Japan?

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Author: Gary Scronce, Director of Preparedness Programs, IEM

I’ve been asked the question a couple of times over the past few days by family and friends, some who know I work in homeland security and emergency management, some who know I spent more than 12 years as an engineer at a nuclear power plant. My answers have generally started with “It’s a little hard to tell right now, but a year or two down the road when more is known about the response operations to the earthquake, tsunami, and what is still evolving at the nuclear power plants, I’m sure there will be plenty of lessons that will affect how we approach things in the U.S.”

My answers start that way because it is still too soon and too hard to tell what is truly going on there from here in the U.S. With regard to the earthquake, I believe we will learn a lot more about how well various structural designs, including those specifically designed to mitigate the effects of an earthquake, really behave in an earthquake this severe. From an engineer’s perspective, there are few substitutes for data from failure analysis of full-scale structures to tell you what will really happen, what variables may not have been considered, and how to design against a similar failure.

Certainly lessons will be learned about what went well and not so well regarding Japan’s response to the earthquake and tsunami. I think this will be particularly true with regard to the need to provide for the basic needs of so many displaced people resulting from what was largely a no-notice event. (more…)

Nuclear Terminology: Getting It Right, Part II

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Author: Debbie Kim APRN, MSN, Sr. Health Care System Analyst, IEM

This morning on National Public Radio, I heard reports of the third reactor fire in Japan, and a fire now in a storage area. They are reporting an hourly release of radiation into the environment. To follow up on Gary Scronce’s previous blog post (Nuclear Terminology: Getting it Right), I wanted to discuss radiation measurement. The CDC Radiation Emergencies website explains it all very clearly. As Gary wrote, there is a difference between emitted radiation and absorbed radiation dose. To measure both, a sensor needs to be in place to provide that measurement. As a nurse, part of what I have always done is to teach patients and their families about treatments and their effects.

Just to make things more confusing there are different naming conventions for describing radiation that is emitted into the environment—radiation dose and radiation risk. There are “conventional units” (or terminology) that some of us old-timers remember such as the Curie (Ci), rad and rem. Then there is the newer System Internationale (SI) that uses the terms becquerel (Bq), gray (Gy) and sievert (Sv). Reporters have been using both versions of the terminology to describe the events surrounding the fires around the reactor site in Japan. (more…)

Nuclear Terminology: Getting it Right

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Author: Gary Scronce, Director of Preparedness Programs, IEM

On Sunday morning, March 13, 2011, I was reading an AP story entitled “Japan fights nuclear threat” by Eric Talmadge and Yuri Kageyama that really pounded home for me again the need to educate the press and public at large prior to potential disasters, particularly ones involving radiation and nuclear plants.

In talking about the blast at one of the Fukushima reactors, the article says,

“Nine residents of a town near the plant who later evacuated the area tested positive for radiation exposure, though officials said they showed no health problems.”

Japan Earthquake and Nuclear disaster

Residents evacuated from areas surrounding the Fukushima nuclear facilities damaged in Friday's massive earthquake, are checked for radioactive contamination, Sunday, March 13, 2011, in Koriyama city, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

This choice of words perpetuates a fairly common misunderstanding about the difference between radiation and radioactive contamination. It is not possible in general to test someone for exposure to radiation unless they happened to be wearing some sort of dosimetry when they were exposed. For instance, if you get a medical X-ray, then go down the street to a laboratory it would not be possible for them to run a test and tell if you had the X-ray or not. What these people were likely tested for was radioactive contamination, the presence of particles of radioactive material on their skin or clothing. Unless some of that material was inhaled or ingested, it can be removed through decontamination, stopping the exposure they were receiving from the contamination. (more…)