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Mock radiation drill held at San Onofre plant

REGION — Emergency personnel and radiation experts participated in a drill simulating escalating emergency stages at SONGS (San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) on Wednesday. 

There are four emergency classifications for power plants, ranked by severity. The highest risk level is a plant failure resulting in radiation exceeding EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards. Wednesday’s drill tested whether officials are prepared to respond to each classification.

As well as exercises at SONGS, officials from Orange County and San Diego practiced disseminating essential information at a Joint Information Center in Irvine. The emergency classification dictated the content of the message.

“What you do depends on just which classification is in effect,” said Chris Abel, community outreach manager with Southern California Edison.

“Different agencies practice communication skills to get everyone on the same page, he added. “We wanted to make sure everyone is ready.”

Southern California Edison, which operates SONGS, holds quarterly emergency exercises at the nuclear station. But this drill, held every two years, was observed and graded by the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), as required by federal law, according to Abel.

In three months, FEMA will issue a full report gauging how officials did.

Abel noted that the drills have been taking place since the plant opened. However, interest spiked in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

Around 65 people from San Diego County took part in the drill, said Holly Crawford, communications director of the Office of Emergency Services for the county.

Crawford said they gathered at the county’s Emergency Operations Center in Kearny Mesa during the drill. One facet of the drill entailed monitoring a fictitious radiation plume.

In the event of an evacuation, she noted Carlsbad High School would act as an emergency center for many in North County. For the exercise, emergency officials prepped for that scenario with phone calls between personnel.

Another aspect involved simulating the activation of the county’s “reverse 911” system. The system places calls containing important information to households if they’re facing danger.

“The operation tested our ability to mobilize supplies and support,” Crawford said. She added that the county wants to “identify gaps in the planning process.”

SONGS closed about 20 months ago due to safety concerns. This summer, Southern California Edison announced plans to shutter SONGS’ reactors permanently. Decommissioning the plant, however, could take decades.

Because radioactive fuel is still present at the plant, the drill remains mandatory.