Ken Jones stood before a pair of television cameras discussing an accident at Surry nuclear power plant.
Harmful radiation had been released, he said, but southerly winds prevented its spread into Newport News — there was no need to evacuate the city.
The accident, of course, did not happen.
It was a simulation to ensure that Dominion Virginia Power, which operates the state’s four commercial nuclear reactors, and emergency responders are ready should a disaster occur.
“These are the type of events you plan for and hope you never have to activate,” said Jones, a former Newport News fire chief and the city’s current emergency management coordinator.
Such exercises occur monthly at the Surry plant, which includes a mockup control room that Dominion trains its employees with. The utility company is under constant watch by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Only twice a year does a phalanx of police officers, firefighters, transportation and health officials, government spokespeople and others come together to practice their emergency response. They operate under the guidance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Concern over nuclear disasters soared following accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. Although no commercial nuclear plants have been built in the United States since then, concern waned as years passed without any major incidents.
That changed last March when a tsunami struck a Japanese nuclear plant forcing evacuations and widespread fear of radiation exposure. Backlash followed with countries, such as Germany, moving to close their nuclear facilities.
There are no plans to shutter the United States’ 104 commercial nuclear reactors, which provide about one-fifth of the nation’s electricity. But watchdog groups are concerned that the nation is ripe for its own disaster.
The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a to-do list last week to improve nuclear safety in the U.S. Among its recommendations: expand the evacuation zone around reactors from 10 miles to 50 miles. Commission members said they will consider such measures but until then the old standards apply.
In Hampton Roads, that means six localities — Surry, Isle of Wight, York and James City counties, and Newport News and Williamsburg — are required to participate in emergency planning. Officials from each locality gathered in separate offices Tuesday to do just that.
In Newport News, a few dozen people huddled at the city’s emergency management building off Jefferson Avenue. Upon learning of the simulated disaster they went through a step-by-step book that outlines safety measures.
Evacuate students from Woodside High.
Keep boaters out of the James River.
Get ready to hand out potassium iodide pills.
The list goes on and, despite the contrived nature of the exercise, there is much attention to detail and little joking.
“If this were a real emergency situation, we’d be calming a lot of fears,” said Lee Ann Hartmann, the city’s waterworks spokeswoman who helps in disaster response.