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Disaster before lunch at Ameren Missouri's Callaway County Nuclear Power Plant

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2011 The morning's sunny start turned gloomy just after 7 a.m. Wednesday and devolved into a full-scale disaster before lunch at Ameren Missouri's Callaway County Nuclear Power Plant.

At least that was the case on paper and in the actions of officials testing the facility's emergency response plan. The drill was one of the every-other-year mock disasters required of all U.S. nuclear plants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency oversee the exercises. It's only coincidence that the 2011 event comes less than two months after a tsunami caused a radiological catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan.

Members of the media were not allowed at the Callaway facility in Reform, Mo., but were invited to a limited viewing of the action at the state's Emergency Operations Center in Jefferson City. While the disaster wasn't real, the response was, said Mike Cleary, an Ameren spokesperson.

"Ameren, the state and the surrounding counties all work together," Cleary said. "And if we can do it in a drill, we can do it in a real emergency."

A 'Disaster' Unfolds

The scripted situation at Callaway began at 7:14 a.m. as an "unusual event," the lowest level emergency. After an hour, it escalated to the second level, called an "alert." By 11:12, the morning's two events prompted officials to declare a third-level "site area emergency." Shortly thereafter, during the first of two mock media briefings, three Ameren officials provided brief explanations.

According to Ameren project manager David Hollabaugh, the first failure happened when a fuel rod break allowed radiation to leak into the cooling system. Next, in a seemingly unrelated event, a turbine that went offline failed to signal the reactor to shut down after such an occurrence. A manual process then shut down all operations.

"Two out of three barriers have been lost," Hollabaugh said. "But the third barrier, the containment building, is still intact."

Residents within a 10-mile radius of Callaway were "alerted" through sirens and what's called "reverse 9-1-1" phone calls, and told to listen to their emergency radio station. Only non-essential employees remained at the plant, but Hollabaugh explained there had been no release of radiation exceeding normal operating levels, that no one had been injured and that no evacuations had taken place.

Hollabaugh and Steve Cheavans, area coordinator for the state Emergency Management Agency, then cleared up "rumors" injected into the exercise. An ammonia leak, resulting from a derailed train in nearby Chamois, had led to evacuations not connected with the nuclear emergency.

"This has sparked a great deal of confusion," Cheavans said. "A number of citizens have called in and thought that evacuation was based on the Callaway incident."

A question-and-answer period followed the briefing. But the reporters weren't the real thing, either. Ameren communications employees, including Cleary, served as "mock media" to familiarize the staff with "questions real reporters would ask," Cleary related.

Grant Fitzgerald, the news conference coordinator for the Emergency Management Agency, told the Beacon that no questions from actual reporters would be allowed. But later, Cleary was surprised to hear reporters had been told not to query the representatives and said he thought their questions were allowed, even encouraged. While this misunderstanding might have little impact on an actual emergency, it did suggest at least a small disconnect in the cooperative response.

Worst-case Emergency

Cleary called the multiple failures written into the drill "science-fiction scenarios." Still, he said, it's imperative to test worst-case situations.

As the morning wore on, the "disaster" intensified, and officials uttered a phrase they never want to say: "general emergency." That fourth and highest-level disaster situation was declared at 11:38 a.m. after a "high" level of radiation -- 4,000 millirem -- escaped from the containment building. A second briefing followed at 12:50 p.m.

"These levels of radiation are above normal, but not so high that we would see observable health affects," Hollabaugh said.

Evacuation was recommended for those living in the five miles around the plant and up to 10 miles downwind. It was up to individual counties to comply with that recommendation. One school system, the Chamois district, evacuated its students to a nearby gymnasium (according to the exercise but not in reality). Schools in Callaway, Montgomery and Gasconade counties held their children in the school buildings. Again, jurisdictional decisions.

Despite the dire situation, officials were optimistic the danger would be over by 6 p.m. That's when they expected the cooling system temperature to drop below the boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

When asked if the Callaway "disaster" might delay any increasing reliance on nuclear power, Cheavans answered by pointing out its relative safety.

"Over a year ago, 29 coal miners were killed in West Virginia. More recently 11 oil rig workers in the Gulf were killed, and there have been natural gas explosions," Cheavans said. "No employee or member of the public was injured at Callaway."

Meanwhile, Back In Operations

While the media briefings were occurring, about 130 officials from the state of Missouri and the four counties surrounding Callaway were busy coordinating their response in the Emergency Operation Center. Earlier, the media had been allowed to take photos of the center from a sound-proof glass-walled meeting room just above it.

Officials in the center were grouped into 17 emergency support functions, including transportation, medical, human services and hazardous materials. As new information became available, each group tested responses in numerous areas, including command and control (similar to the executive branch of a company), communications and alert systems.

Abruptly, at 1:30 p.m., the disaster drill was declared over. In the event of an actual emergency, Tim Diemler, deputy director of Missouri's Emergency Management Agency, noted that the response would, of course, continue, and that media briefings would be held until the emergency had lifted.

"But in a drill, there are certain things that need to be demonstrated. Once all those target capabilities have been demonstrated, there's no reason to drag it on," Diemler said.

The Emergency Management Agency will issue an initial report about the mock emergency on Friday, but a detailed evaluation will take months. At first glance, though, the drill went "very well," Diemler said.

"Things are so preliminary now, but I can say there's nothing that jumped out at us, so it's going to be about the minutia when we dissect this exercise and go through all the different comments and things like that," he said. "But we'll learn something -- I'll guarantee that."

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.