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Nuclear meltdown drill focuses on mass decon, evacuation of thousands

Federal, state and local agencies trained on how to handle thousands of evacuees in the event of a reactor meltdown at a Connecticut plant


This March 18, 2003, aerial file photo shows the Millstone nuclear power facility in Waterford, Conn. Virginia-based Dominion Energy owns the 550-acre plant, which generates nearly 40 percent of the electricity produced in Connecticut.

Steve Miller/Associated Press

By Steve Smith
Hartford Courant

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — What would happen if the Millstone nuclear power plant were to meltdown?

It didn’t and it unlikely to, but to prepare for such an emergency, West Hartford’s Fire Department and emergency services division held a drill Saturday to activate the town’s emergency shelter at Conard High School, in the event that the town had to assess, decontaminate and accommodate people from Montville and Waterford who have evacuated the area near Millstone.

West Hartford agencies included the fire and police Departments, Office of Emergency Management, Plant and Facilities Department, social services, the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District and West Hartford Public Schools.

The exercise included about 150 staff and volunteers, as well as role-players, portraying evacuees from Montville and Waterford. Personnel from FEMA, the state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, the American Red Cross, the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Connecticut State Animal Response Team, the Connecticut Medical Response Corps, the Disaster Behavioral Health Response Network, Dominion Energy and the towns of Waterford and Montville participated.

The evacuation site is designed to handle up to 3,500 evacuees.

In the scenario, vehicles arriving with evacuees first pass through a detection poles, and are designated “dirty” when contaminated with radioactive materials, and “clean” if not. The dirty vehicles pass through checkpoints set up around the school building, manned by police and members of the West Hartford Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, to further evaluate the vehicle and passengers.

Then, cars are left and de-contaminated, with evacuees escorted into a the school’s small gymnasium, where they pass through a detection portal. If clean, the people head into a the large gym. If contaminated, they go into the decontamination tent, which includes showers. Once decontaminated, those evacuees proceed to the large gym.

In the large gym, the evacuees are first registered, then evaluated for needs. Some may need assistance finding temporary living spaces, reuniting with family, or medical needs.

“Do they need help finding loved ones? Were they split up?” said Faith Fuerst, who was manning the registration table. Evacuees may be urged to take potassium iodide (KI) which protects the thyroid and other organs from the effects of radiation. “Even if they haven’t detected radiation on you, it can still be on you,” Fuerst said.

Medical professionals were on hand to administer KI, if needed.

“We would ask them a series of triage questions to determine if they needed to receive potassium iodide,” said Melissa Marquis, Public Health Emergency Response Specialist with the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District. “We would ask them if they have any medical conditions, and answer any questions that they have.”

Michael Firsick, supervising radiation control physicist for CT DEEP, said residents within 10 miles of a nuclear facility are in the Emergency Planning Zone, or EPZ, and periodically receive instructions on what to do in case an incident occurs. If it were to occur, DEEP and the facility would notify the governor.

“What DEEP does is look at the potential quantity of radioactive material, where it’s coming out, direction and wind speed, and then we get a protective action recommendation from the station, and we make a protective active recommendation that we provide to the governor,” Firsick said. “It’s his decision to shelter in place or to evacuate.”

“One of things I love about these exercises is the collaboration between the municipality, state agencies and federal agencies,” said Brenda Bergeron, deputy commissioner of the state Division of Emergency Services and Homeland Security. She added that other exercises are done in the EPZs to practice the facilitation of evacuations.

The federal agencies, Bergeron said, are there to evaluate the exercise, but it’s also a very “working relationship.”

Ingrid Pierce, FEMA Region 1 (Boston) Technological Hazards Branch chief, said that West Hartford is being evaluated for the day, but it is not a graded or pass/fail type of test.

“We look at pretty much everything. We have a set of criteria that’s planned in advance, so everyone knows what we’re going to be looking at, and we have evaluators at every station,” Pierce said. “The purpose of doing this is to make sure the town is able to implement their plans. We always try to work with them to see if there are any areas for improvement.”

Firsick said that the potential for a Chernobyl-type accident is extremely small, because of the way American nuclear plants are designed – always containing the nuclear material.

“All of the measures keep all of the radioactive material in the plant,” he said.

Bergeron said the test and its evaluation will enable Connecticut and West Hartford to more easily get disaster declarations if needed, and federal disaster funding.

“Tracking everything, and the town keeping track of their expenses, helps us determine whether or not we can ask for a major disaster declaration,” Bergeron said. “So, we have to paint the picture of how severe it was – how many people come through, how many meals were given out, how much overtime expenses were, and things like that – all of that goes into whether we can ask for a Presidential disaster declaration for an event.”

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