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Nuke officials: Drills will continue

Officials say Plant Farley will continue to be in a high-level state of preparedness, despite new federal rules relaxing requirements at some of the nation’s nuclear facilities.

Officials say Plant Farley will continue to be in a high-level state of preparedness, despite new federal rules relaxing requirements at some of the nation’s nuclear facilities.

BLAKELY, Ga. -- New federal government guidelines allowing nuclear regulators to relax emergency preparedness drills won't keep nuclear power companies from maintaining high levels of readiness, officials say.

The revamp, the first since the program began after Three Mile Island in 1979, also eliminates a requirement that local responders always practice for a release of radiation.

Under the new rules, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which run the program together, have added one new exercise: More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, state and community police will now take part in exercises that prepare for a possible assault on their local plant.

In the South, where Southern Company's Plant Farley sits on the Chattahoochee River straddling the the border between Southeastern Alabama and Southwestern Georgia, officials say that any relaxed requirements by the feds won't deter them from maintaining a high level of preparedness.

Linda Brannon, a spokesperson for Alabama Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, said employee and public safety remains the company's top priority when it comes to its nuclear power plants.

"The nuclear industry is one of the most regulated industries in this country, and not only do we abide by the federal regulations, we usually take it a step beyond because we live here. This is our home, and I think that's why Farley has one of the best safety records in the industry," Brannon said.

FEMA and NRC records bear that out.

According to the last inspection report filed on the NRC webpage, Farley had no findings and regulators heralded the participation and collaboration between Alabama and Georgia officials.

It's good news for the public, who are growing more distrustful of the nuclear power industry following last year's Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan.

Because of Farley's proximity to Georgia, many people in the state's rural Southwestern corner likely have no idea that they're in an emergency radiological zone and yet state officials have plans on the books to handle a radiological event as far as 50 miles out from the Houston County, Ala., plant.

The Georgia Counties included in the Georgia Emergency Management Agency's Radiological Emergency Plan include Baker, Quitman, Seminole, Miller, Early, Terrell, Dougherty, Clay, Mitchell, Decatur, Grady and Randolph counties.

GEMA, FEMA and agriculture officials each are part of a plan to ensure foodstuffs, forage material and milk are tested and uncontaminated in the event of an incident from Farley.

"The Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Division work closely with GEMA in ensuring the food supply is protected. The Department of Agriculture has the ability to identify all food producers throughout the state. The Environmental Protection Division's Environmental Radiation Program is responsible for conducting field monitoring and analysis," Crystal Paulk Buchanan, GEMA spokesperson said.

"Both agencies participate in all Ingestion Pathway and Plume phase exercises -- we average four to five exercises per year. Additionally, we have conducted several exercises over the past few years involving federal response organizations that would augment state efforts in identifying contamination in the unlikely event of an accident," she said.

As for Farley itself, plant officials remain in regular contact with local, state and federal officials, particularly emergency officials in Early County and in Houston County, Ala., and Henry County, Ala.

"Half of our emergency planning zone is within the state of Georgia, all within Early County, So we work very closely with the EMA officials in Blakely, Houston County, Alabama, and Henry County, Alabama," Brannon said.

Brannon says that Alabama Power and plant officials are working on overhauling the plant's 10-mile emergency notification system.

The plant currently uses tonal alert radios to warn people that an incident has occurred. Those will be phased out and replaced with a sophisticated siren system.

An Associated Press investigative series in June exposed weaknesses in the U.S. emergency planning program. The stories detailed how many nuclear reactors are now operating beyond their design life under rules that have been relaxed to account for deteriorating safety margins. The series also documented considerable population growth around nuclear power plants and limitations in the scope of exercises. For example, local authorities assemble at command centers where they test communications, but they do not deploy around the community, reroute traffic or evacuate anyone as in a real emergency.

The latest changes, especially relaxed exercise plans for 50-mile emergency zones, are being ripped by some local planners and activists who say the widespread contamination in Japan from last year's Fukushima nuclear accident screams out for stronger planning in the United States, not weaker rules.

FEMA officials say the revised standards introduce more variability into planning exercises and will help keep responders on their toes. The nuclear power industry has praised the changes on similar grounds.

In its series, the AP reported that populations within 10 miles of U.S. nuclear sites have ballooned by as much as four and a half times since 1980. Nuclear sites were originally picked in less populated areas to minimize the impact of accidents. Now, about 120 million Americans -- almost 40 percent -- live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, according to the AP's analysis of 2010 Census data. The Indian Point plant in Buchanan, N.Y., is at the center of the largest such zone, with 17.3 million people, including almost all of New York City.

In a GEMA report obtained by The Herald, at least 93,000 Georgians live within the 50-mile emergency zone of Plant Farley.

Gary Lima, who manages the nuclear readiness program at the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said 50-mile exercises should be run more frequently than once every eight years. "Recovery is really your hardest work," he said.

Even when the program mandated a six-year timetable, federal authors of the 2002 program manual acknowledged that "many (first responders) have indicated a desire" for even more frequent exercises in the 50-mile zone.

The Japanese disaster reinforced such worries when officials told some towns beyond 12 miles from the disabled plant to evacuate. The U.S. government recommended that Americans stay at least 50 miles from the plant. Soil and crops were contaminated for scores of miles around. At one point, health authorities in Tokyo, 140 miles away, advised families not to give children the local water, which was contaminated by fallout to twice the government limit for infants.