COLUMBIA — Clemson University Public Service and Agriculture is collaborating with state and federal agencies to plan for an unlikely yet potentially catastrophic event – the widespread release of radiation from a nuclear plant.
South Carolina has four fixed nuclear power plants and one federal facility, making it one of the nation’s top producers of nuclear energy. There also are three more power plants situated near the state’s borders.
Nuclear fission accounts for about 50 percent of the state’s electrical energy. That’s a lot of atom-splitting for such a relatively small swath of land.
This is all good news, right? For the most part, yes. But despite nuclear energy’s affordability and reliability, there remains an emotionally charged elephant in the room.
The possibility of a widespread release of radiation from a nuclear plant — though extremely unlikely given today’s high-tech system of safeguards — remains a potential occurrence.
In a worst-case scenario, a catastrophic event could spread death, illness and economic ruin as far as 50 miles from its origin.
About every eight years – on a rotating basis – each of the 30 states that contain fixed nuclear facilities is required by the federal government to plan for the worst. Now it’s South Carolina’s turn.
On July 21-23 in Florence, the state will host an “Ingestion Pathway Exercise” – IPX for short – during which the nuclear industry, state and county emergency management teams, radiation experts and several federal agencies will devise intricate plans on how to best deal with a nuclear release.
The Florence IPX will have a particular focus on how such a disaster would affect the food and agricultural communities within a 50-mile radius of the plant.
“We’ve seen the lasting effects of nuclear power-related emergencies around the world,” said Nathan Nienhius of the S.C Emergency Management Division. “The nuclear industry is heavily regulated in the United States. Our emergency plans, our exercises with each of our plants and our public safety partnerships are all efforts to be better prepared for any incident.”
Three Clemson Public Service and Agriculture agencies – Livestock-Poultry Health, Cooperative Extension and Regulatory Services – are assisting with the preparation for this exercise. Each of these agencies will have a role in protecting S.C. agriculture in the event of a radiation accident.
As part of the groundwork, an agriculture workshop was held in May in West Columbia to spotlight the state’s agribusinesses. Workshop participants included county emergency management directors, state and federal regulatory agencies and a representative from Robinson Nuclear Plant in Darlington County near Florence.
“DHEC, South Carolina Department of Agriculture and Clemson Livestock-Poultry Health work together day-to-day any time there is a food safety event where our agency missions intersect,” Charlotte Krugler, Emergency Preparedness Veterinarian for Livestock-Poultry Health, told the large gathering.
“We have really good protection. There aren’t many gaps. But some would like response decisions about agriculture in a radiation event to be easy and uncomplicated, and I’m afraid that’s just not going to be the case,” she added. “In reality, this would be a horrible event that could persist for months or years. Devising an effective plan of action will be complicated and will involve coordination and cooperation among multiple agencies.”
Krugler has been working for several months to plug in the pieces of a complicated puzzle involving private agricultural businesses and government, as well as a slew of delicate legal issues — all for something that will probably never happen. However, planning and practicing with local, state and federal partners should help reduce chaos should a real event occur.
As a liaison to S.C. Emergency Management, Krugler assists with the coordination of resources that would be needed for animal/agricultural emergency response during disasters. In addition to Krugler, 10 Extension agents represented Clemson PSA during the workshop. Highlights included how S.C.’s agricultural commodities benefit the state economically and how each could be affected in the Ingestion Pathway Zone during a widespread release of radiation:
• Jonathan Croft, agriculture agent for Orangeburg County (corn and soybeans)
• Charles Davis, row-crops agent for Calhoun and Richland counties (cotton and peanuts)
• Carolyn Dawson, area forestry agent in the Upstate region (forestry)
• David DeWitt, row-crop agent for Lee, Sumter and Kershaw counties (tobacco)
• Greg Henderson, statewide commercial horticulture agent (peaches)
• Tina Horn, state dairy agent (dairy)
• Powell Smith, associate program leader/horticulture crops (leafy brassica greens)
• Cory Tanner, area horticulture agent for Greenville, Pickens, Oconee and Anderson counties (nurseries, greenhouses, sod)
• Jennifer Tsuruda, state apiculturist (honeybees)
• Morris Warner, senior agent in Oconee County (poultry, beef cattle, swine, horses, forages, wheat)
Other state agency representatives at the workshop were Derek Underwood, the assistant commissioner for the S.C. Department of Agriculture; Scott Brown, Lee Jackson and Nathan Nienhius from the S.C. Emergency Management Division; and Michael Spradlin from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The federal agency representatives were John Jensen, John Pavek and John Aucott of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Aucott concluded the workshop with words of praise for Krugler and the entire exercise planning team.
“If I lived in South Carolina, I would be very proud of all the hard work and dedication you’ve already put in to make sure that South Carolina is prepared in the unlikely event of a disaster,” Aucott said. “What you’ve been doing here thus far is groundbreaking. The rest of the nation will benefit from your efforts.”