Washington, DC - In the event of a nuclear accident or an act of terrorism at a U.S. nuclear power station simultaneously occurring with an electrical grid failure, only 27% of the nation’s 62 nuclear power emergency planning zones using public notification siren systems are prepared to fully operate their emergency sirens independent of the main power lines. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has revealed that 40% of the nation’s siren systems are entirely reliant upon electricity from the grid. Three emergency planning zones do not utilize sirens but rather distributed tone alert boxes. NRC acknowledged that some but not all of the sites without backup power are implementing or plan to implement siren upgrades. The Department of Homeland Security /Federal Emergency Management Agency have been engaged in revising public notification systems since the August 14, 2003 northeast regional electricity blackout. The information was contained in the agency’s denial, issued today, of a public petition requesting emergency enforcement action requiring nuclear power stations to install battery back up power to vital emergency notification equipment.
The petition filed on February 23, 2005 by 17 independent public interest organizations and local governments documents that grid failures as the result of lightning, hurricanes, ice storms, earthquakes and mechanical failures in the electricity distribution system routinely cause a loss of power to community alerting systems around nuclear power stations. Furthermore, the loss of offsite power significantly increases the risk of a core melt accident because of reduced safety systems.
“NRC is ignoring public safety by failing to promptly enforce its own licensing agreements for emergency planning,” said Paul Gunter, Director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for Washington, DC-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “It’s shocking that NRC is so beholden to industry that it is unwilling to simply require the installation of back up power for emergency sirens in every planning zone,” said Gunter. “This is typical bureaucratic foot dragging that leaves communities not only in the dark but without emergency notification if there is a nuclear accident or terrorist attack,” he concluded.
“It’s ridiculous that at the very times when the chances of an accident are at their highest, the emergency notification sirens, in all likelihood, will not work,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s energy program. “This is simple technology that could be readily implemented and is already being used successfully in certain locations. There’s no excuse for dragging this process on year after year.”
In its denial NRC argued that it is inappropriate for affected communities to take up the request for back up power for sirens under the agency’s emergency enforcement petition process. Instead, NRC determined that a request for back fitting the nuclear industry with emergency power for its siren systems should go through NRC’s petition for rule making, a bureaucratic process typically involving two years of deliberations.
NRC does not dispute the fact that many siren systems around nuclear power stations will fail in the event of a radiological release coinciding with a power blackout. The NRC and nuclear industry’s current fall back position is to rely upon “local route notifications” where first responders (police and fire departments, etc.) get into emergency vehicles and communicate instructions through bull horns while traveling through neighborhoods within the ten-mile emergency planning zone.
“It’s absurd to suggest that with an approaching radioactive cloud an already overburdened police or fire department driving around neighborhoods with bull horns or along roads, some possibly impassible, can adequately compensate for deliberately leaving these sirens inoperable,” said Gunter.
NRC has not made public a list of nuclear power stations with and without emergency power supplies for alert notification systems. Three emergency planning zones utilize tone alert systems and not sirens.
The emergency enforcement petition requested that the sirens be provided with chargeable battery backup systems, preferably through photovoltaic solar powered arrays so as to assure siren operation for the duration of any emergency. Supplements to the petition identified existing examples of solar powered sirens at remote locations around nuclear power stations and retrofitting of entire siren systems with battery backup power.
A copy of the NRC’s May18, 2005 NRC’s Director Decision is available upon request.
To view the February 23, 2005 Emergency Enforcement Petition and a list of known nuclear power stations with emergency planning zone siren failures go to: