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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.

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