About Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, Tornadoes, Evacuation Plans — and Car Pooling

Here’s a what-if for you. What if there had been an accident at Browns Ferry in North Alabama when it lost power after its power sources were knocked out during the F5 April 27, 2011 tornado? That could have happened. Initially, the Tennessee Valley Authority “indicated everything functioned as it should”; however, Pam Sohn reported in the Chattanooga Times Free Press that

“documents the utility is required to submit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission show reactor operators became distracted while manually operating cooling water flow to the Unit 1 reactor and water began boiling off faster than it was being replaced.

“Additionally, a valve failed, a diesel-driven fire pump failed, the diesel-driven generator for the security station failed, the warning sirens were lost, power to the chemical lab was lost, and an emergency diesel generator keeping cool water flowing to one of three reactors shut down because of voltage fluctuations caused by a fluid leak after a brass fitting broke.”

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., now ranks Alabama first in the nation for severe tornadoes. In other words, what happened April 27 at Browns Ferry could happen again.

A tornado doesn’t even have to be involved, of course. No natural disaster was involved when Browns Ferry came close to being the site of the first ever meltdown:

“Because of a fire that rendered most of the safety systems useless the TVA-owned plant came very close to being the site of the first major nuclear accident in 1974. Ultimately catastrophe was avoided by the tiny Athens Fire Department using common sense and dousing the first with water, even as the nuclear specialists at the plant rebuffed the local firefighters for six hours as they attempted to put the fire out with various chemicals.” [Tommy Stevenson, Tuscaloosa News]

You should have a look at Browns Ferry 2011. Really, you should; it has such lovely pictures of autumn leaves and lilies and butterflies. This is a calendar/brochure for people who live within a 10-mile radius of the plant. It has an evacuation map and driving directions. People with special needs aren’t forgotten: they can return a postage-paid card and their names will be placed on a list!  The problem is, these instructions wouldn’t have been much use on April 27, 2011. Consider this:

How will people be alerted of an accident? Use of the Prompt Notification System sirens, radio, and television. On April 27 there were dozens of tornadoes in North Alabama. By the time the late afternoon wave came through, electricity was off, and siren towers blown down.

If somehow the alert gets through — enough sirens are still functional and people have battery radios on — and the call is to evacuate, what are they supposed to do? “Use your own transportation, or, if possible, ride with a neighbor.” Carpooling is the evacuation strategy for a meltdown! And what if you don’t have a car? I guess this is the scenario anticipated here: “If you have unique needs or experience problems, call 211 for assistance.”

Now then, after the tornadoes, there would have been some problems with these instructions. Gas pumps wouldn’t be working, telephones wouldn’t be working, traffic lights would be out, and roads would be blocked by live wires, fallen trees, and other debris.

Let’s face it. With a car you might get out; without one, you don’t stand a chance. And this seems to be FEMA policy in general. These are its instructions for preparing for evacuations:

“Keep a full tank of gas in your car if an evacuation seems likely. Gas stations may be closed during emergencies and unable to pump gas during power outages. Plan to take one car per family to reduce congestion and delay. Gather your disaster supplies kit. Make transportation arrangements with friends or your local government if you do not own a car.”

There is, in other words, no Federal evacuation plan. You are on your own. And that worked out so well for so many before and after Hurricane Katrina, and for Texans during 2005’s Hurricane Rita:

“Evacuees fought traffic Wednesday afternoon through mid-day Friday, moving only a fraction of the normal distance expected.[14] Average travel times to Dallas were 24–36 hours, travel times to Austin were 12–18 hours and travel times to San Antonio were 10–16 hours, depending on the point of departure in Houston. [29] Many motorists ran out of gas or experienced breakdowns in temperatures that neared 100 °F (38 °C). Traffic volumes did not ease for nearly 48 hours as more than three million residents evacuated the area in advance of the storm.[14] This was the largest evacuation in U.S. history.”

Glad to know we’ve learned from experience. And remember to keep your gas tank full at all times since once “an evacuation seems likely” it will be too late. And if you don’t have a car, well, why don’t you? Maybe someone will give you a ride. Yeah, right.

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