Participants in nuclear release scenario await their test results

Hope Creek/WDEL File

Eerily realistic emergency scenarios will play out Tuesday as part of a drill to test Delaware's ability to respond to a nuclear emergency at the Salem Hope Creek Nuclear Plant in New Jersey.

Delaware is within 10 miles of the exposure pathway zone if a nuclear emergency were to occur across the river.

A number of agencies, including the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, the Delaware National Guard, the Delaware Department of Transportation, and the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services will be taking part in the drill. The Red Cross, amateur radio operators, civil air patrol units, and Coast Guard auxiliary teams also have the opportunity to participate in various exercises. 

While Technological Hazards Branch Chief Tom Scardino can't give away specifics about Tuesday's federally-mandated biennial drill because the element of surprise is pivotal in emergency scenarios, he described past exercises.

"Adversaries would break into the plant and cause damage that would ultimately lead to the release of radiation," he said.

That drill was developed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to ensure that local law enforcement and the FBI and state law enforcement could better understand nuclear plant operations and integrate with plant security forces. Delaware completed its requirement for that test in 2014, according to FEMA.  

Last year, Delaware partnered with Maryland to undergo another scenario, where radiation extended beyond the exposure pathway.

"Radiation going beyond 10 miles [contaminates] food products such as crops, milk, the water supply," he said.

Police will be assessed on their ability to maintain traffic control.  

"We want to have access control out to prevent people from getting in that 10-mile zone once we start the evacuation...and traffic control are at key intersections to facilitate a speedy exodus out during the evacuation," he said. "We'll also have some exercise injects as an impediment to the evacuation route--how will local law enforcement handle an impediment that affects the evacuation?  How would they work with Public Works or the Department of Transportation and create a diversion or removal of the impediment?"  

The drill will take place on May 22, 2018, from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m., and the average citizen shouldn't even notice, officials said, with much of the happenings underway inside DEMA's headquarters.

"The public [shouldn't have] any cause for alarm...there won't be any resources deployed to the nuclear power plant, so the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] will be at the plant to evaluate how the plant responds to the accident, and their role is to evaluate what we call 'inside the fence'--the utility itself--and FEMA's role is to evaluate 'outside the fence'--state and local governments in implementing their response plans," said Scardino.

The tests also go beyond drill day. They'll be evaluating a reception center in Smyrna Thursday morning.

"Places where evacuees would go to and be monitored for radiation and decontaminated, if required, and then provided for mass-care--shelter, feeding, those sorts of things," said Scardino.

Last week, FEMA experts evaluated first aid responders at Christiana Hospital.

"[We assessed the ability to] take a contaminated injured patient to the hospital, and we assessed the hospital's ability to receive that patient and, obviously, provide patient care, but also be able to prevent the spread of contamination throughout the hospital," he said.

The drills are vital to public safety and were ordered by President Carter following the the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

"If we did have an accident at one of these nuclear power plants, it provides the responders with the knowledge and skill sets to implement their plans," he said.

Preliminary results will be unveiled Friday, May 25, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Dover.

"If we uncover something--there's a fault in their plan, we would assess a plan issue that can be addressed; if it's a performance issue, where someone didn't do their job as written in the plan, then we would issue a performance issue," he said.

But Scardino didn't anticipate that would be necessary; he praised Delaware's program and what he called "active engagement" by emergency management officials.  

"We haven't had a cause to create a finding that would jeopardize any of the plant's operating license," he said.   

Amy Cherry is the Assistant News Director and an investigative journalist at WDEL. She joined WDEL's award-winning news team in 2010 from WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and has received national accolades for reporting.