Palm Beach Post

Drill tests responses to nuclear accident


By Jim Reeder, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2003

FORT PIERCE -- Florida Power & Light and Treasure Coast emergency management officials played their annual game of "let's pretend" Friday, handling a mock disaster at the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant.

Everybody lived happily ever after when it was over, just as they hope would happen if a real emergency should occur at the plant.

But there were a few glitches.

Friday's mock disaster started with the loss of power. One emergency generator started, the second did not.

The disaster escalated from there to a loss of cooling water around one nuclear reactor, allowing higher temperatures that could damage the plant.

FPL workers had the advantage of re-writing the scenario if questions made them uncomfortable.

They once said there were power failures "up and down the East Coast." When questioners suggested that might indicate terrorism, FPL simply decided there was only one power failure after all.

FPL personnel and local reporters quizzed emergency management officials from the company, St. Lucie and Martin counties about the event at mock news briefings.

St. Lucie County officials received reports that one radio station read a mock press release on the air saying that public beaches and parks on South Hutchinson Island had been closed because of a problem at the plant. The station didn't warn it was only a drill until several minutes later, officials said.

"We got calls from some listeners and we told them everything was okay, it was a drill," Bonnie Ashley, mid-day announcer at WHLG Coast 103, said. "We always said it was a drill on the air."

She said she knew nothing about a mock disaster drill until the first faxed "news release" arrived with the heading "this is a drill."

Closing the beaches was the first step that would have affected the public if Friday's event had been real. Hutchinson Island residents would be allowed to remain in their houses until later because it's easier for them to get alerts by radio or television, officials said.

Eventually students at Village Green and Morningside Elementary schools would be evacuated to Thomas J. White Stadium.

Thousands of residents would be ordered to leave their homes as a precaution against radioactive material being released into the air.

Many of those would head south into Palm Beach County, where officials conducted their own drill.

Emergency personnel at John Prince Park in suburban Lake Worth checked cars and people for radioactive contamination, according to Chuck Suits, Palm Beach County's special project's manager.

"We could issue potassium iodide pills and determine if anyone needs hospitalization," Suits said.

Had this been an actual emergency, 69-year-old Woody Collake would have had to strip down right there in front of the dozens of onlookers while the folks in the rubber gloves, white suits and masks sprayed him down. Collake was one of numerous volunteers who played the role of potential nuclear fall-out victim so that the agencies could check all the high-tech bells and whistles used to detect and treat radioactive exposure.

"I have no idea what they're going to do to me, but I'm fixing to find out," said Collake, a colonel in the sheriff's office Citizen's Observer Patrol.

Federal regulators require the drill annually because of the proximity of the nuclear power plant. If a meltdown occurred, experts predict some 100,000 people "are gonna haul butt" out of the immediate hot zone, with many heading this way, said West Palm Beach assistant fire chief Jim Harmon.

This year's exercise involved company, local and state officials.

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are scheduled to attend next year's drill.

jim_reeder@pbpost.com