The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan weighed heavily on the minds of those who attended a public hearing Tuesday on the New Jersey Radiological Emergency Response Plan (RERP).
The hearing, held by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the New Jersey State Police, was treated as a question and answer session as members of the public expressed their concerns with Oyster Creek Generating Station, the oldest operating nuclear plant in the country.
The Emergency Response Plan is updated annually with minor changes, said Paula Baldauf, assistant director of Radiation Protection Programs with the DEP.
“Since agencies' roles and responsibilities of the RERP outlines don’t often change, the plan itself does not often change. Standard operational procedures contain detailed instructions and guidelines used by each agency when performed by their duties …The procedure is revised as necessary in order to enhance emergency response,” said Patrick Mulligan, manager of the Bureau of Nuclear Engineering at the DEP.
Although no major changes have been made within the past year, Baldauf anticipates many over the next few years following the catastrophic event that took place in Japan. What occurred in Japan, has yet to be addressed in the U.S., he said.
“We are at the very initial stage of this as far as what we’re learning. From an emergency preparedness standpoint, I think the big issue is communication. Other technical issues will take some time,” Baldauf said.
Some of the expected changes were highlighted in .
“One thing [the disaster in Japan] did was make us open that plan up and really get into the weeds in it and re-examine a lot of things. There are recommendations in the task force report that will ultimately affect our plan,” said Lt. Thomas Scardino, assistant bureau chief of the Emergency Preparedness Bureau for the New Jersey Division of State Police.
The major concern expressed during the public hearing was whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) plans to extend the RERP to a 50-mile radius.
“I’m concerned about that. If Americans were advised to not go before the 50-mile zone area in Japan, then the same Americans in this country should have the same requirement,” said Edith Gbur of the group Jersey Shore Nuclear Watch.
Currently, the RERP is in place for all municipalities within a 10-mile radius of Oyster Creek. But when the events at Fukushima transpired, the NRC extended the evacuation planning in Japan to 50 miles.
“The 10-mile emergency planning zone is a planning zone but that doesn’t prevent us from going further if necessary depending on the incident. Most of the analysis and the assumptions placed into the 10-mile planning zone would be sufficient,” Baldauf said.
Mulligan explained that the NRC’s expansion of the evacuation plan was directed toward the Americans within Japan and included the movement of about 400 people.
“It was not their intent for us to go back and re-evaluate the plans in the U.S.,” Mulligan said.
The 10-mile radius, which is set by the NRC, is still sufficient to get an evacuation unde rway and can be expanded as necessary for public health, he said.
There is no way to evacuate a 50-miles radius from Forked River, Kathy Sims said, pointing out that Ocean County’s population is more dense than Japan’s.
Reports have shown that radioactive contamination has reached as far as 85 miles from the Fukushima plant.
“It seems like the only environmentally safe thing to do is to shut the plant down,” Sims said.
Mulligan reiterated that extending the emergency plan's radius would be looked at in the future.
Three of Fukushima’s four reactors had a meltdown, and there was a growing concern that the spent fuel rods kept closely to the reactors would cause a nuclear chain reaction.
“I’m sure you’re very aware of the potential hazards and dangers of having a spent fuel pool so close to the reactor,” Michael Glaab of the American Nuclear Society said.
Glaab was concerned that without the establishment of a federal nuclear repository in sight — and with the NRC’s extension to allow spent nuclear fuel to be stored on-site at a nuclear plant for 60 years — Oyster Creek poses a great danger to the local area.
Oyster Creek has one reactor and is beginning to put spent fuel in storage casks and store them on site, which is not an unusual practice for nuclear plants, Mulligan said.
“Currently the NRC is engaged at looking into the incident that occurred at Fukushima Daiichi and the phenomenon that happened with their spent fuel pools as well as reactors, and they are coming up with a plan or a roadmap to take a look at what’s going on at U.S. reactors and a plan to improve and enhance the program,” Mulligan said.
Another issue at Fukushima was that the ventilation system failed because the plant blacked out when it lost power and the system needs electricity to operate.
Oyster Creek has the same sort of ventilation system but the issue is up to the NRC to deal with, Mulligan said. The NRC is currently investigating the possible issue with the ventilation system.
“The state doesn’t regulate on site. We don’t tell them what technology to use. We certainly have our engineers involved in that process, watching what’s going on at the plant and with the NRC as a follow-up to Fukushima. That’s really not a regulatory issue that’s within our control,” Mulligan said.
A strong concern posed by residents is the efficiency of the evacuation plan and whether it would work to maneuver Jersey Shore traffic in the event of an emergency.
“I personally would not leave my home living within a three-mile radius because I feel that any accident that would occur at the power plant would be so severe that it wouldn’t pay for me to leave my house, and be upset, and endure the discomfort of going to one of the six reception center locations,” Regina Discenza of Lacey Township said.
With over 28,000 residents in Lacey Township alone, and six reception centers, Discenza said she does not see the point in trying to evacuate.
“Why would I leave the comfort of my home knowing that I’ve already been exposed to some sort of radiation? I never had any faith in the evacuation plan, ever. Everyone knows what the weekend traffic is like in Forked River. When there is panic, human nature takes over,” she said.
Despite the traffic, Scardino said the state police would prefer that residents listen to the guidance that is put out over the emergency alert system.
“Those decisions aren’t just made off the cuff. They are made with a lot of collaboration with experts, scientists, based on dose projections, based on plume modeling. We hope that the message to the public is that they would follow the recommendations of the governor in the event of an emergency,” Scardino said.
Judith Carauccio compared a possible evacuation within the emergency-planning zone to an evacuation of a beach at Seaside Park.
“Nothing moves,” she said. “I feel very uneasy about it.”
“Any evacuation is going to pose challenges. If we have to evacuate the shore during a hurricane, there are challenges there, as well. The positive that I keep reinforcing during these meetings is that our plan is written and it’s tested,” Scardino said.
Discenza also brought up that in her 12 years of living within three miles of Oyster Creek, she has only heard the sirens twice.
The sirens are tested annually by Oyster Creek and were last tested on June 7.
“If my house is closed and my windows are closed and there is a radio or TV on, you cannot hear those sirens. I do not believe they are effective,” Discenza said.
Discenza said that the siren sounds similar to the fire department’s siren, making it hard to distinguish.
Two tests were done on June 7 where law enforcement officers and staff were strategically placed within the emergency-planning zone, Scardino said. They all heard the sirens, he said.
“Were they in houses with closed windows and TVs and radios on? Because that’s the way you really need to test them. Because that’s the way the American family lives. The American family lives with a lot of chaos in their house,” Discenza said.
Through the Task Force, the state is exploring alternative ways of notifying the public of an emergency including background route alerting by the police and fire departments, a reverse 911 phone call, and reverse text messages sent to cell phone users.
“I’m a firm believer and advocate of the siren system as long as the public is informed about it,” Scardino said.