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South Carolina Woefully Underprepared for Nuclear Disaster

FITSNEWS,  ByDylan Nolan, 23 May 22,    Oconee Nuclear Station emergency sets off alarm bells,   

 South Carolina state government can’t get a nuclear reactor up and running, as was made clear by the spectacular failure of government-run utility Santee Cooper — which five years ago officially pulled the plug on the proposed V.C. Summer nuclear generating station expansion (a.k.a. NukeGate). The botched construction of this project cost Palmetto State ratepayers and taxpayers more than $10 billion.

What is less known, but potentially more ominous, is the fact that sources close to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) Radiation Nuclear Safety unit say the state is woefully underprepared to respond to potential nuclear disasters.

Staffing this specialized unit has allegedly become an increasingly serious issue for SCDHEC in recent years. The unit dwindled from seven to three full-time employees as frustration with ineffective management led to employees finding work elsewhere.

The remaining full-time employees are stretched thin. The map below [on original] illustrates South Carolina’s nuclear facilities, as well as those in neighboring states that have the potential to harm South Carolinians in the event of a disaster.

The SCDHEC unit is responsible for more than just those facilities though, it also handles transportation incidents involving radiological materials

This seems like a herculean task for three individuals — one that could have ended poorly in early February when two of the (at that time) four employees of the unit were out of town at a training event when an incident involving a potential release of radiological material at the Oconee Nuclear Station threw the remaining two employees into high gear.

As the first light of dawn penetrated the darkness of the lakeside sky, it cast a dull glow over the three reactors — built in 1974 on the Keowee River at the foot of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. This still morning would soon be broken, however.

At 3:57 a.m. EST February 5, the west penetration room adjacent to one of the three reactors filled with smoke and prevented personnel from entering. At this time, officials at the plant filled out their initial nuclear power plant emergency notification form (ENF).

Nuclear facilities experiencing emergencies issue warnings indicating the severity of an accident. In this instance, employees at the Oconee station chose the second of four alert levels. According to the emergency response guide posted on plant operator Duke Energy’s website, this indicates “there is no impact to the public.” The plant’s resident Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) inspector concurred with that assessment.

Had they chosen the next level of alert — a site area emergency warning — plant operators would have indicated they believed the event to be a “major operational/ security event that could affect plant safety” and would have likely warned the public of the event’s occurrence.

The Oconee County Fire Department responded by sending five trucks on-site with more staged off site.

SCDHEC’s response was solely conducted remotely. A source close to this unit characterized this response as “strictly for show” — adding that managers frequently refuse to allow the responders to go to the scene of the emergency.

SCDHEC’s director of media relations Ron Aiken told FITSNews that “because both the facility and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed no off-site release occurred, no emergency field-monitoring by SCDHEC was required.”

One SCDHEC insider frustrated with the response contended that “this unit is set up to be the state’s assurance that nothing is/was being released.”

“We should not have sat by and waited for the plant to tell us that there was no leak,” the insider said. “If there was a leak, it would have been too late to perform any protective actions.”

While plant operators did not issue a warning that would notify residents surrounding the plant, they sent employees to their Charlotte, N.C.-based emergency operations facility — which allows engineers to have off-site control of the plant in the event it had to be evacuated.

SCDHEC didn’t conduct independent soil and vegetation testing until three days after the incident. According their internal after-action report (below) “taking the soil, water and vegetation samples three days after the incident and with rain being present diminished the possibility of detecting anything.” A source familiar with the report added that “we don’t have any option but to take them (nuclear plant operators) at their word.”

……………….a federal response would take hours to arrive given both the complexity of responding to a nuclear disaster and the fact that federal officials are primarily located out of state. A failure to properly handle a situation in the hours before the feds arrive could turn an emergency into a tragedy

……….  Individuals familiar with the operations of the unit have voiced concerns that none of the stakeholders truly care about the efficacy of the unit. The state’s nuclear power plant operators care a great deal about the state continuing to provide the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with “reasonable assurance” that the state can adequately respond to nuclear disasters since their ability to operate plants is dependent on federal approval of state safety measures…………………………… State and local officials must therefore be ready to stand in the gap during those crucial first hours.

May 26, 2022 - Posted by | safety, USA

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