Search This Blog


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Immersed in the World of Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station

Heckard with Instructor Jim Ledford
and Bob Beamon, VP Site Operations
Today’s blog comes from Matt Heckard, DEMA’s Radiological Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. 

Heckard has worked in the Radiological Emergency Preparedness Branch since the beginning of 2015. He previously worked in emergency planning. Heckard holds a Bachelor of Science degree from NAU, and a designation as a Master Exercise Practitioner (MEP) from FEMA-NETC. He worked in healthcare for eight years prior to joining DEMA.

Arizona is home to the largest nuclear power plant in the United States, located about 50 miles west of downtown Phoenix.  Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (PVNGS) is home to three nuclear reactors, which have been supplying the southwestern U.S. with power for almost thirty years.  

The Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) is the lead Arizona agency for a joint federal program, the FEMA Radiological Emergency Preparedness (REP) Program, that helps PVNGS maintain an active relationship with federal, state, and local government partners “beyond the fence” of the plant.  This relationship is of critical importance to make sure that all entities know how to work together to protect the health and safety of the public at all times, and especially in the event of an incident at PVNGS.

As part of my position within DEMA assigned to the REP program, I ventured out to PVNGS for an intensive four week training class during most of July and part of August.  My goal was to gain an in-depth understanding of how a nuclear power plant works, what can go wrong, and what systems are in place to protect Arizona and the whole community from the risks associated with a potential release of radioactive materials into our environment.  

Unit 2 is one of three units at PVNGS
The prospect of learning so many complex details within a short amount of time was both daunting and exciting.  Normally, the class is reserved for PVNGS technical personnel who take a version of this class that is six months long.  Aspiring reactor operators, who will actually work in the control room and operate the plant, take a version that is eighteen months long.  

Despite these challenges, the REP program in Arizona recognizes the importance of this knowledge in being able to partner with PVNGS and form a common operating picture based on mutual understanding of hazards to our community. I felt a strong sense of duty to do my best to strengthen and enhance that relationship, and to become a more effective resource for DEMA and Arizona.

During the first week, I made every effort to immerse myself in the volumes of technical material, specifications, systems diagrams, and a whole new language of nuclear science and reactor theory. We took a 40 question test every week, and the material was cumulative, meaning that each successive test included not only the material from the current week but the previous weeks as well. Subject matter experts from almost all departments within PVNGS were invited in to lecture on  specific programs; including chemistry, regulatory affairs, fuel handling, water reclamation, security, and my personal favorite, emergency preparedness.  

As the weeks went on, I became more accustomed to incorporating the additional levels of systems into one complete model. Understanding how power is generated in a nuclear power plant provides a crucial context for understanding what kind of protective actions Arizona may take if there is an incident. Most importantly, a release of radioactive materials from PVNGS into the environment is something Arizona and PVNGS know how to detect, monitor, measure, and ultimately strategize to mitigate. 

Unlike many other types of emergencies, these factors add up to a significant advantage in the hands of Arizona officials, DEMA, and emergency responders. This is the crucial basis of the REP Program which prepares for an emergency at PVNGS through planning, training, and exercising efforts.
PVNGS Reactor-fuel Assembly

By the end of the fourth week, I left with a renewed sense of confidence in PVNGS, the REP Program, and the scores of highly trained and highly dedicated individuals who support both of these programs within Arizona. 

During a tour inside the plant itself, weaving our way around hot steam piping, turbines, pumps, and electrical breakers, I was struck by the condition of the plant itself. Even here, inside an area in which few people outside the plant will ever see, everything was kept meticulously clean, organized, and in good repair. 

It’s just another piece of evidence as to the quality of the attitude and approach to harnessing 4000 megawatts of power, and respect for the unique and demanding responsibility of nuclear power in our age. I feel better than ever to be here and be a part of it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

“Yes, Those Fireworks Are For You”

My family emergency supplies kit got bigger over the Fourth of July weekend. After 40 weeks of freeloading, our daughter was born mid-afternoon on the Fourth. I wonder how long I can keep her convinced that the fireworks are for her?

Our little schemer
Mom, baby and I are doing well. Mom and I are relearning what it means to get “a good night’s sleep.” No surprise there. And baby is already graduating into bigger clothes and diapers.

At the moment of my daughter’s birth, any emergency plans we had were made as incomplete and obsolete as pagers and floppy disks.

I confess that the arrival of my daughter didn’t catch me off guard; in fact, she was a week late, which gave me almost 10 months to update the family kits and communication plan before she showed. In my defense, it’s not like I wasn’t keeping busy. There were strollers and a swing to assemble, multiple car seats to install, and everything needed to be quality assured.

Now that the baby is here, there’s no better time to review our emergency plans and refresh our supplies, and supplement our kits with bottles and enough clean clothes, food (e.g., formula), diapers and wet wipes to last a few days.

In addition to the basics, we also have to account for the unique needs (e.g., probiotic drops) and likes (e.g., pacifiers) of our daughter, who if you gaze long enough into her little crossed eyes, you can tell is already thinking of ways to give her father grief.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the needs of a baby change rapidly over the course of the first year, so we’ll have to revisit our kit again—maybe a few times—before the recommended six months. It won’t be long before we’ll need to add baby food, bigger sized clothes and diapers, medications and whatever else my daughter needs to stay happy and healthy for 72 hours. And to think, there was a time when I thought the only things I needed to get by were my wallet, car keys and a cell phone with a charger.

Eventually, our family communication plan will have to be updated too. My wife and I are lucky enough to have jobs that give us the option of staying home with our daughter for the next several months. At some point, however, we will need to make other childcare arrangements, which could mean hiring a nanny or placing our daughter in daycare. In either case, when the time comes, we’ll need to add contact information for the nanny or daycare to our family communication plan. We’ve already updated our plan with the name and number of our daughter’s pediatrician.

In the grand scheme of things, updating your family emergency supplies kit and family communication plan might not seem like such a big thing. Most everyone’s to do list is long and getting longer every day, especially when you’re a parent. And as a consequence, emergency preparedness becomes one of those things--like descaling the coffeemaker—that we hope to get around to eventually. Life happens, but so do emergencies.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Arizona Disasters Highlight Collaboration Among Jurisdictions

Damaged home in Wickenburg
Photo by: DEMA staff
The Town of Wickenburg recently received close to four inches of rain in less than an hour. The resulting floodwaters rushed down Cemetery Wash towards the Hassayampa River, inundating the Vista del Pueblo neighborhood along Constellation Road.

After the water receded, the destruction was obvious--downed power lines, eroded roads, broken water mains, undermined rail lines, mud and debris inside homes, damaged infrastructure, and debris everywhere.

The Town gathered their resources and began the recovery process. Arizona Public Service, and Team Rubicon and American Red Cross volunteers arrived to assist in the clean up, as did Maricopa County employees.

Damaged road in Wickenburg
Photo by: DEMA Staff
A couple of days later, I made a trip to Wickenburg with some Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) coworkers for a meeting with Town officials.

Wickenburg Town Manager Josh Wright organized the meeting as an opportunity for partner agencies to discuss what potential resources are needed to get the Town back to running smoothly, and for its residents to recover.

Maricopa County Flood Control, Public Works, and Emergency Management, DEMA, and the American Red Cross all joined Wickenburg officials to talk about recovery. The meeting included a discussion of infrastructure damage and repair, resources, and how to help the townspeople.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter, which converted into a resource center for anyone affected by the flood and in need of assistance. American Red Cross’s disaster team had been visiting homes to assess the damage.

Wickenburg Resource Center
Photo by: Red Cross
After the meeting, DEMA’s Voluntary Agency Liaison contacted Arizona Southern Baptist Relief and The Salvation Army to join the American Red Cross, along with town and county representatives, to staff the Community Center, a place where people can receive resources and referrals to assist in recovery.

Since I joined the Department, I’ve always been impressed with how well Arizona agencies collaborate with one another. When something happens in one jurisdiction, neighboring jurisdictions jump in to assist with whatever is needed to help with response or recovery.

When a community is unable to respond or recover on their own, they can look towards other agencies to help due to the Arizona Mutual Aid Compact (AZMAC). Mutual aid allows emergency responders to lend immediate assistance across jurisdictional boundaries when needed.

Recovery begins in Wickenburg
Photo by: Town of Wickenburg

In Arizona, all 15 counties are part of the AZMAC, along with many towns, cities, tribes, school districts and fire departments. The ability to respond and assist in a timely manner helps communities like Wickenburg begin the recovery process sooner, getting them back to normal faster.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The world of "what if"

Working in emergency management is like planning for and managing a world of what ifs.  What if the wildfire triggers large-scale evacuations?  What if we lose our primary information sharing tool?  What if flooding isolates a community in need of food and emergency medical access?
Earlier this month, the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) and FEMA hosted a workshop to identify many of the what ifs the Whole Community will face during the long-term recovery to an incident at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.
DEMA participates in several  Palo Verde exercises a year that allow agencies to practice response procedures, alerting protocols,  protective action decision-making and distribution of public information.  These activities are outlined in the joint emergency response plan, Offsite Emergency Response Plan for Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.   

The workshop was different because it focused on recovery needs at 8 weeks, 1 to 4 years and 10 to 40 years post-incident.  Recovery activities for all incidents are outlined in the Arizona Disaster Recovery Framework.  The focus of recovery is how to best restore, reconstruct and redevelop the social, natural, and economic fabrics of the community.  Specifically, this workshop centered on economic recovery, housing shortfalls, and health and social service gaps. 

How did we solve all that in two days?  As you might guess, we came up with more questions than answers:

  • ·        What if people won’t return to evacuated communities due to fear of radiological impacts?
  • ·        How do you educate/engage the public on actual vs. perceive radiation risks?
  • ·        What needs to be done to sustain the agricultural businesses in Arizona?
  • ·        How do you certify the agricultural products are safe to consume?
  • ·        How are contaminated products disposed?
  • ·        How do you decontaminate critical roadways to ensure efficient transport of commodities?

Even though many questions were left unanswered the workshop was made worthwhile by the diverse discussion and relationships developed.  More than 80 people representing 23 agencies attended the workshop.   Each agency articulated different concerns and approaches to solving the problem.

Representatives from the Arizona Department of Agriculture were concerned about farmers that would need to move their businesses out of the contaminated area.  Would land be available for them to replant?  How long would an embargo on agricultural products last?

Power company representatives were concerned about impacts to the power infrastructure.  Would it be possible to make repairs to damaged infrastructure in contaminated areas and keep the emergency workers safe?  Are incentive programs available to encourage solar energy in the rebuilding of communities?

Even the representatives from the various sections of DEMA had different concerns.  The Recovery Section was looking at the whole picture and was concerned about having the right agencies participate in returning the community to the new normal. The Public Information Office was concerned about the communication of  coordinated and consistent messaging to the public.

Although the workshop focused on  recovery to an incident at Palo Verde, the questions that were raised, the ideas that surfaced and the relationships that were developed will make the emergency management community stronger regardless of the what if.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Monsoonal Heat is on

Haboob rolling into Phoenix.
Photo by NWS/NOAA
It’s 5:30 in the morning and multiple screens are lit up green, yellow, red and magenta with swirling radar images. Voices all around me are engaged in discussion about moisture and heat predictions.  An amazing video of prior monsoon storms is playing on another screen.

I’m in the Phoenix office of the National Weather Service (NWS) where they provide weather data, including forecasts and warnings to the public. And even though it’s not yet 6 a.m., people here, at least, are hard at work.

Governor Doug Ducey proclaimed June 14 to 19 as Monsoon Awareness Week, and I’m at the NWS office to do a few media interviews about monsoon hazards and the importance of preparing before an emergency or disaster occurs.

The big question is “how much rain are we going to get?’” Meteorologists will tell you that the projected monsoon outlook is a difficult one to predict as it’s hard to say when and where storms will develop. Add in the uncertainty of El Nino, and it becomes tougher to predict storms.

“When we look into the summer, we are getting mixed signals. We will get rain, flash flooding and lightning at some point. But we don’t know how much of anything will happen yet,” said Paul Iniguez, NWS Phoenix Science and Operations Officer.

“What we are sure of is that in the near future we will deal with really hot temperatures.  The heat is the deadliest weather phenomenon we deal with in Arizona. Year after year, it’s the heat that truly affects people,” Iniguez added.

This week, the first Excessive Heat Watch  and Warning was issued by the NWS. An excessive heat watch is issued when temperatures are expected to be above 105. An excessive heat warning is issued when three or more consecutive days are expected to reach higher than 105.  For parts of Arizona this week, very hot temperatures of 110 to 115 degrees are possible. These temperatures can have serious health impacts on individuals.

The Arizona Emergency Information Network (AzEIN) has tips on staying safe during the extremely hot summer months.

While we are waiting for the storms to arrive, it is a good idea to take some steps now to prepare for the potential monsoon dangers.

Write a family communication and evacuation plan. Practice the plan with your family so everyone  knows where to go if you do have to evacuate.

Build an emergency supplies kit for your house and a smaller one for your vehicle with the necessities  you need to survive on your own.

Pay attention to the weather forecast. Know where it floods in your area. Visit Flood Smart to see if you  live in a flood prone area and talk to your insurance agent about flood coverage.

 Visit AzEIN for more information on monsoon preparedness