SALEM — On February 19, representatives from various Oregon state agencies got the worst possible news: there’d been an incident at the Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant located in Washington on the Columbia River, about 30 miles north of Oregon. State employees immediately kicked into gear: coordinating with state and federal counterparts in Washington to understand what’s happening on the ground, setting up an agency operations center at the Oregon Department of Energy’s headquarters, and readying to dispatch teams of scientists down I-84 to Hermiston.
Thankfully, the incident wasn’t real. It was a regularly-scheduled exercise designed to ensure that Oregon is ready to respond to an unlikely – but still possible – nuclear accident.
That exercise, and similar annual trainings for the Hanford Nuclear Site, also located in Washington, involve dozens of state employees. Subject matter experts from the Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE), Oregon Health Authority (OHA), and the Oregon Department of Agriculture team up with a radiation expert from Oregon State University to address potential threats from the two facilities. They’re joined by other ODOE staff who have been trained in emergency response and who help run the agency operations center in Salem – everything from communications to GIS mapping to county outreach.
ODE Leads Trainings on Response
Ken Niles, head of ODOE’s Nuclear Safety and Emergency Preparedness Division, leads the multi-agency trainings. “These exercises test and hone Oregon’s emergency response procedures and how we’d handle an event that’s happening beyond our state borders. The scenarios vary, and details are revealed slowly throughout the day-long event, so we have to work together to figure out the appropriate actions to take to protect Oregonians.”
The biggest threat from an incident at the power plant or Hanford is radioactive contamination affecting eastern Oregon’s agricultural industry. The exercises often include working with counties to get teams from ODA and OHA out in the field to take soil, water, and air samples that can help guide decision-making about the safety of people, animals, and the environment.
Todd Carpenter, Manager of Radioactive Material Licensing for OHA, has been participating in the nuclear exercises for 11 years, along with a large OHA team trained to evaluate radiological threats to Oregonians. “The exercises build relationships that we’d rely on in a real emergency,” he said. “They also provide a critical quality assurance test of our policies and procedures.”
Immediate Emergency Phase is Critical
Carpenter notes that the exercises typically focus on the immediate, emergency phase of the response, but in a real event, the state would also be ready to act during the much longer recovery phase.
Dr. Steven Reese, Director of the OSU Radiation Center, has participated in Oregon’s nuclear exercises since 1999. Part of his job is helping to evaluate at times incomplete data to determine the risk to Oregonians.
Dr. Reese has seen a number of changes in the state’s response efforts. “The availability of information is dramatically better. The ability to have real-time video conferencing and the speed in which we can access data has improved how we respond,” Dr. Reese noted. “At the same time, the social media dynamic means that we need to be ready to not only share information about any risks, but also address misinformation about the true nature of the hazard.”
At the end of every event, participants share what they learned from the day’s exercise – what worked, and what can be improved. This evaluation is critical to the state’s future response and is helpful for graded exercises, which are conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Administration every other year. FEMA evaluated Oregon’s emergency response in 2018, noting that the team worked well together and met all of its requirements.
This year’s exercise was the first for Erica Euen, a public affairs specialist at ODOE. “The scope of the state’s response is much larger than I expected,” she said. “It was valuable to work with people who’ve been doing this for a while, learn how to track down information and make sure it’s accurate, and translate that information for general public communications.”
For more information about Oregon’s Nuclear Safety and Emergency Preparedness program, visit https://www.oregon.gov/energy/safety-resiliency/Pages/Emergency-Preparedness.aspx.