Feds Cut Nuclear Emergency Exercises, Avoid Public Scrutiny

By L M Lewis  [Cross-posted from Enformable.com]

Not since the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina has the US federal government so callously ignored disaster red flags.

Disregarding lessons of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the Nuclear Regulatory Administration (NRC) secretively issued a new rule that decreases the frequency of emergency exercises and requires the use of exercise scenarios with no release of radiation, the Associated Press (AP) reported Tuesday. The new rule will be implemented jointly by the NRC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The US government conducts two kinds of radiological emergency exercises assessing the state of preparedness. “Plume phase” exercises, conducted every two years, test readiness to respond in the early stages of a radiological emergency, for example to coordinate lifesaving activities like evacuation and sheltering. Recovery phase exercises, typically called “ingestion pathway” exercises, test readiness to protect the food supply, clean up the environment, relocate residents, and aid economic recovery.  The Japanese government’s unpreparedness to carry out those responsibilities needlessly exposed consumers to radiation, ballooned costs, ruined farmers, traumatized residents and stunted recovery.  The chances that it could happen here in the US have increased as a result of the NRC’s new rule.

In May 2009, the NRC published a draft rule (NRC-2008-0122), titled “Enhancements to Emergency Preparedness Regulations,” that described proposed changes and solicited public comment. After the public comment period ending October 19, 2009, NRC commissioners reviewed the draft rule on January 14, 2011.  None of those who reviewed the proposed changes had the benefit of knowing how the March 2011 disaster in Japan played out, challenging previous assumptions.

For public safety’s sake, the NRC should have started the process over again, providing a post-Fukushima opportunity for review and comment.  Instead, it forged ahead with the Final Rule, publishing it in the Federal Register on November 23, 2011—the day before Thanksgiving—when Congress would be out of town and news desks would be lightly staffed. By making the rule effective December 23, on the threshold of Christmas, the NRC ensured that the rule would again receive little notice when published in the Federal Register.  Apparently, the NRC considered the event too mundane to issue a news release, unlike weightier events publicized in releases titled, “NRC Goes Live on Youtube,” and “Follow NRC on Twitter.”

An NRC webpage dated March 29, 2012, describes the rulemaking history but provides only this vague description of the rule: “The rule changes would strengthen nuclear power plant emergency preparedness by enhancing response to hostile action events and by updating certain requirements, including those related to public alert and notification systems and evacuation planning.” The rule describes impacts on licensees (utilities), but affects state and local governments as well according to FEMA officials interviewed by the AP.  FEMA manages exercises testing offsite preparedness as described in the Code of Federal Regulations, 44 CFR 350.  Some of the changes appear beneficial, particularly for utilities, but others undermine the efforts of state and local governments to derive benefits from an exercise process that already had problems.

Until the NRC issued the new rule, recovery exercises were conducted every six years.  That was problematic because, in less time, many plans would have been revised, personnel would have changed, and organizations would have restructured.  That made it likely that the first time a responder implemented a radiological emergency plan—which could take up an entire shelf—would be when a real event occurred.  Infrequent exercises thus negate their primary benefit, which is to discover plan implementation flaws when lives are not on the line. Incredibly, the NRC has now widened the exercise interval, allowing recovery exercises to be conducted every eight years.  In that case, they might as well make the interval once a century because the benefit to public safety could not be smaller.

Federal officials are dismissive of the impacts of the changes on state and local governments. The Associated Press reports, “Pressed on the reduced frequency of 50-mile [ingestion pathway] exercises, federal planners said community personnel can practice skills as often as they like, without needing a full-blown federal evaluation each time.” For a couple of reasons, that claim is absurd. First, federal evaluations are necessary because federal agencies possess expertise that is scarce or nonexistent at the state and local level.  One state self-evaluation I have seen included significant errors that a federal evaluator would not have missed. Secondly, the cost of FEMA-evaluated exercises is, by law, paid largely by the nuclear utilities.  Many communities could not otherwise afford to conduct the exercises; they are dependent on utilities to cover even routine costs of staff and equipment. Reducing exercise frequency will increase utility profits and stick taxpayers with the costs of ‘optional’ exercises that are, in fact, necessary for public safety.

Another major change involves exercise scenarios.  In every eight-year exercise cycle, one exercise must incorporate a “hostile action” scenario. Nuclear plant vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks have been a frequent subject of discussion since the 2001 attacks, so this is a powerful improvement on its face.  NRC’s requirement to address the scenario in emergency plans could, however, be used as a pretext to hide radiological emergency plans from public scrutiny and to require security clearances for all personnel.  Creeping secrecy is a problem in federal programs, allowing corruption and incompetence to go unseen by the public and unchallenged by insiders, whose security clearances give management the means to retaliate with little concern for due process or whistleblower protections.

At least one plume phase exercise in each exercise cycle must incorporate a scenario in which little or no radiation is released.  It is a realistic scenario, playing out frequently in real life; but that is exactly why it isn’t needed. Utilities and communities tend to be well practiced in handling that scenario and even if they perform poorly, the consequences are minor. Large releases of radiation are rare, but potentially catastrophic. Communities need exercises in order to be prepared for them. But, now, in every exercise cycle, there will be a period of four consecutive years when state and local officials will have had no practice responding to a major radiological accident scenario. Putting that change into effect less than a year after the Fukushima disaster is particularly unwise, and demonstrates the influence of industry representatives who view worst-case scenarios as public relations nightmares.

A more helpful element of the new rule requires utilities to update their numbers on population densities in emergency planning zones (EPZs). Previously, utilities could rely indefinitely on population data provided during a plant’s initial licensing process. This is a good change, but the benefits of having better data will be lost if unpracticed responders cannot effectively use them. The potential roses in the NRC’s new rule are outweighed by its thorns.

The AP reports, “Officials for FEMA and the NRC said they are still studying whether Japan’s experience points to the need for further changes in the United States.” If those nameless officials paid any attention to the Fukushima disaster, they would already know that the latest changes took the radiological exercise program in the wrong direction. And, if they weren’t paying attention, why are they are still employed?

[First published May 18, 2012 at Enformable.com. Cross-posted with permission.]