photo from www.nrc.gov
photo from www.nrc.gov
Saturday October 20, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- An emergency at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon isn't the only radiological emergency state agencies are preparing for.

Starting on Monday, the Vermont Department of Health is hosting a multi-state exercise designed to test regional resources that might be called upon if a "dirty bomb" was detonated or in the event of an incident involving the transportation of radiological materials.

An estimated 200 local, state, New England and federal responders are expected to participate as players, evaluators or observers. Details of the exercise are known only to a few state, regional and federal planners. All other responders to the exercise scenario will be operating as if it was a real event.

"We must be ready for anything -- from a natural disaster, to an infectious disease outbreak, to a biological, chemical or radiological release," stated Health Commissioner Harry Chen, in a press release announcing the exercise. "We must put our plans, training and inter-operational systems to the test, and the best test is a realistic, real-time full-scale exercise."

It's all part of the 43rd annual meeting of the New England Radiological Health Committee to be held Oct. 22-26 in Burlington.

Bill Irwin, the Chief of Radiological Health for the Vermont Department of Health, said every year the New England states get together to discuss radiological issues.


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"This year we decided to schedule two exercises and devote training workshops to radiological emergency preparedness," said Irwin.

During tabletop exercises, participants will be presented with a multi-county, multi-casualty scenario, he said, followed by a set of training workshops.

"But the really big activity will be on Thursday, when we are going to have a full-scale exercise," said Irwin.

It will be a totally different scenario than those that have been practiced in the Yankee EPZ, he said, but many of the people will be the same and the skills they have learned will be applicable.

"The idea is to be able to do this anywhere it might pop up in the state," said Irwin.

Erica Borneman, Emergency Management Project Specialist with Vermont Emergency Management, said a radiological emergency wouldn't be restricted by state boundaries.

"This type of exercise is really helpful because it shows how resources from other states can be integrated into other radiological-type events other than those related to nuclear power plants," she said.

Borneman said even though this exercise is not connected to Vermont Yankee, lessons learned from emergency drills in the emergency preparedness zone around the power plant can be applied in exercises such as the ones planned for next week.

"These are concepts that can be applied across the board," she said.

Vermont State Police Lt. Rick Hopkins, the former Rockingham Barracks Commander and now the Director of the Vermont Homeland Security Unit, will be on hand as a facilitator.

"During a tabletop I will be assigned to a small group and work them through a scenario," said Hopkins. "As a facilitator, I will pose some questions and see how they respond."

The participants will be observed and evaluated on how they react to different scenarios, he said.

"They will receive documents that will identify areas of strength, areas that need improvement and recommendations for going forward," said Hopkins.

"New England is unique in the United States," said Irwin. "We have the New England Compact, and this conference is how we keep this compact ready for any and all radiological emergencies."

On Oct. 25, a full-day exercise will take place at the Vermont Fire Academy in Pittsford, which will serve as the incident scene, the State Emergency Operations Center in Waterbury, and the Health Department's Operations Center in Burlington.

Earlier in the week there will be a tabletop discussion-based exercise, workshops, presentations and tour of the Health Department's laboratory.

State organizations with a major role in the exercise are the Department of Health, Department of Public Safety (Homeland Security, Emergency Management, Fire Safety, HazMat, State Police), Agency of Natural Resources, Agency of Agriculture, the Vermont Fire Academy, local fire, police and EMS, University of Vermont and Vermont 2-1-1, along with the state health departments that make up the New England Radiological Health Compact: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Participating federal agencies are EPA Region 1, Department of Energy, FBI, Department of Health & Human Services/Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, FEMA, Department of Defense, Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.