Washington, DC — In the event of a simultaneous accident where the nuclear power station melts down at the same time the main power lines fail, the emergency siren system for the entire emergency planning zone will lose power and not be operable to alert the surrounding populations to an approaching radioactive cloud. In response to a petition filed by Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and 16 other organizations and local governments, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has revealed that 28 reactor emergency plan zone siren systems are entirely reliant upon electricity from their regional grid. Another 18 sites have only partial emergency power backup available to siren systems. Only 17 reactor sites have siren systems that are fully backed up with emergency power systems so that they would remain operable independent of the failure of main power lines. 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 but no date for completion is available. The information was contained in a NRC denial issued May 20, 2005 of an emergency enforcement petition submitted on February 23, 2005 requesting that emergency back up power supplies (rechargeable batteries preferably on photovoltaic solar panels) be back fitted to all public alert systems around the nation’s nuclear power stations. The NRC released a list specifying reactors sites without power back up, partial back up and full back up, today.
“These siren systems would not have worked from day one if the grid failed the same time these reactors melted down,” said Paul Gunter, Director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for Washington, DC-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “NRC is saying that public safety can wait on bureaucratic foot dragging that can leave communities not only in the dark but without emergency notification if there is a nuclear melt down,” he said. “The seventeen sites that have emergency power for all their sirens is enough to demonstrate that it can and should be done for all of the reactor sites, today,” Gunter said.
The petition documents that grid failures as the result of lightning, hurricanes, ice storms, earthquakes as well as mechanical failures in the electricity distribution system routinely cause a loss of power to community alerting systems around nuclear power stations. The loss of offsite power significantly increases the risk of a core melt accident because of reduced safety systems. Typically, NRC mock terrorist attack tests at reactor sites begin with the assumption that the main power lines are taken down.
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 claims it does not want to duplicate efforts of the DHS/FEMA to revise guidance on outdoor warning and mass notification systems as directed by the House Committee on Appropriations following the August 14, 2003 blackout.
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 sole jurisdiction to require reactor operators to back fit the emergency notification system for the emergency planning zone,” said Gunter. “It is the responsibility of reactor operator to demonstrate and maintain its emergency notification system to work,” Gunter concluded. NIRS is aware that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D/NY) plans to raise this issue before the Senate Environment and Public Works Oversight Hearing of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission scheduled for Thursday, May 26, 2005