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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

This is a Drill

Unit 2 at PVNGS. Photo by: APS
“This is a drill. The State Emergency Operations Center has been activated for a situation at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Report to your assigned duty station. This is a drill.”

After receiving this message, I hung up my cell phone and headed out to the car with three of my coworkers at the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA).

We were exercising a Hostile Action-based (HAB) Incident at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (PVNGS). The call meant the exercise had begun.

Federal regulations mandate PVNGS and its emergency response partner agencies conduct regular drills and exercises to evaluate plans, emergency response capabilities, and related protocol. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) evaluate the exercises every other year.

DEMA participates in a few different types of Palo Verde exercises. There are Plume Exposure Pathway (the 10-mile radius where protective actions could be needed to protect public from the effects of exposure to radioactive materials) and Ingestion Exposure Pathway (a 50-mile radius where food or potable water could become contaminated as a result of a release of radioactive materials in the atmosphere) exercises. The exercise this month simulated a hostile action at the Palo Verde plant. 
Inside the Palo Verde JIC.
Photo by: APS, C. Aanensen
If an event were to happen at PVNGS, I would be part of the team working out of the Joint information Center (JIC), 30 miles west of downtown Phoenix.

A JIC is a place where public information officers (PIOs) and representatives from a variety of agencies coordinate public information activities. We all contribute to information dissemination and media briefings. By being co-located, we can insure the right message is being accurately released to the public.

This wasn’t my first trip to the JIC. The state of Arizona, Maricopa County, PVNGS and other partners often practice responding to a variety of emergencies at the plant.

This one was a little different as it was being evaluated by FEMA and the NRC. This was the first federally-evaluated HAB exercise in support of PVNGS. As such, a lot more people were at the JIC than during a regular exercise.

While one of my co-workers drove, I started reading incoming emails. Events were unfolding very quickly out at the plant, and I wanted to stay on top of information while en route to the JIC. Apparently they were already at a Site Area Emergency. Site Area is the third highest of the four possible emergency classifications at the plant.

A Site Area Emergency is declared when small amounts of radioactive material could be released near the plant due to potential events involving actual or likely major failure of plant functions needed for public protection.

The highest emergency classification level, a General Emergency, is declared when radioactive material could be released outside the plant site, or a hostile action could result in a loss of physical control of the facility.

By the time we reached the JIC, more information was coming in about events at the plant--potential assailants, power concerns, etc.

When enough people had arrived, the JIC manager formally activated the JIC and we really got to work. An update was given to the group immediately. Each person shared information they had received from their particular agency. A media briefing was scheduled and the group started working on a news release.

Inside the SEOC
Photo by: DEMA PAO, Spc. Wes Parrell
My contact at the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) shared what information she had and what protective action decisions had been made by the policy group.

The SEOC at Papago Park Military Reservation is the place where representatives from state agencies and its partners work to coordinate the State’s response to emergencies and disasters. They are the decision makers for their agencies and lead the response to occurring events. They collect, gather, and analyze incoming information and then make decisions to protect the life and property of the community.

Back at the JIC, the agency spokespersons gathered in the green room to discuss what we needed to share with the media and the public. Representatives from PVNGS; Maricopa County emergency management, public health and sheriff’s office; DEMA, Red Cross, and the FBI talked about what information needed to get to the public right away.
Addressing the media at the JIC.
Photo by: APS, C. Aanensen

Any information affecting the public (including calls to action) is always the priority. When we entered the media briefing, the protective action for the public (i.e., every person within five miles of the plant) was to shelter in place.

We each made our statements, answered questions, and headed back into the JIC where we were given updates as to the latest happenings.

We went through the process of gathering information, meeting, taking phone calls from our EOCs, writing news releases, and addressing the media three more times before endex, which is jargon for “end of exercise.”

I enjoyed the exercise and grow more comfortable in my role each time we train together. As a PIO, having all the right people in the room makes it easier as well. Drills and exercises improve interagency communication and helps build working relationships. Interacting with my partners in a steady state (non-emergency) makes it easier to work together in a time of stress and emergency.

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