In Monica Ray’s experience, preparing for the unlikely event of an emergency at Arizona Public Service’s Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station requires coordination and communication. From comparing lessons learned with emergency response teams at other nuclear energy facilities to updating the Arizona Division of Emergency Management on new protective actions, Palo Verde’s director of emergency preparedness and security is constantly facilitating communication between groups inside and outside of the industry to ensure that the facility and the community are prepared for any potential emergency.
Q: What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job?
Ray: I find the rapidly changing environment to be both the most challenging and the most rewarding part of the work that I do.
We are continually evaluating and adjusting Palo Verde’s emergency response strategy taking into consideration both our own operational experiences as well as those of our industry colleagues. We also have to respond to regulatory changes, so the requirements for our programs are never stagnant.
The rewarding part is accurately identifying a potential issue, anticipating new rulemaking from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and then demonstrating that we are well-prepared for any challenge.
For example, we opened Palo Verde’s energy education center (EEC)—a facility designed to serve as our emergency response headquarters should an emergency or security-related event occur at our location—one week prior to Fukushima. This demonstrates our commitment to emergency preparedness and shows that we are planning beyond what is required.
Using this facility and our highly trained technical staff, we can efficiently and effectively respond to any kind of emergency, large or small.
Q: How would you use the energy education center to respond to an emergency situation?
Ray: The center houses the joint information center (JIC) and the emergency operations facility (EOF). In the event of an emergency, the EOF would serve as the link between Palo Verde and off-site entities—including federal, state and local agencies—to keep everyone informed of the actions being taken to mitigate an emergency and ensure a coordinated response. The JIC is a media center that would be activated to provide the public with information about conditions at the site and recommendations to the state officials for steps they should be taking to protect public health and safety.
Since Fukushima, we have been incorporating these facilities at the energy education center into our drill and exercise scenarios. We have also expanded our communication capabilities to make sure personnel at Palo Verde can easily connect to personnel at the EEC and other emergency communications networks.
Q. What are your primary responsibilities as the director of both emergency preparedness and security?
Ray: There is a tremendous amount of overlap between emergency preparedness and security—whatever happens in one department always impacts the other. Palo Verde found that by merging the two departments under a single department head, we could improve our response capabilities. My main responsibility is to make sure that our site security and emergency plans fit together exactly as they should and that when we update them based on new rulemaking or something we have learned through one of our many drills, we’re engaging the various off-site agencies representing the state of Arizona, Maricopa County and the nearby town of Buckeye.
Q. How often do you evaluate Palo Verde’s emergency response capabilities and how are these evaluations used to improve the facility’s emergency response plans?
We run approximately 50 drills a year with our site teams and several times a year with the state, county and local agencies.
We’re expanding our drill participation given the new NRC requirements. These drills test our ability to fulfill emergency response functions when there is a security threat. In this scenario, the state and the county would set up an incident command post near the site and then we demonstrate the effectiveness of our communication capabilities with each other, including the FBI and/or the National Guard.
Every other year, our on-site emergency response capabilities are evaluated by the NRC, while the off-site agencies are evaluated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In between these federally evaluated drills, we perform many of our own drills and critical self-evaluations. The results of those drills and the corrective actions we take are inspected by the NRC on a regular basis.
Q: Have these drill scenarios prepared you for real-life emergencies?
Ray: Yes. While doing a number of different emergency preparedness drills, we discovered a need to communicate detailed information to specific workers at the site. There are approximately 3,000 people working at Palo Verde, which is like trying to communicate with a small city, so we are constantly looking for ways to improve our ability to provide direction to key people and groups in a timely manner.
Shortly after we deployed a new program called Send Word Now®, which allows us to send tailored messages to any kind of personal mobile device, we had an event which temporarily limited access to the site. In the early hours of the morning, we were able to use the communications program to alert individuals, ranging from control room operators to maintenance personnel, as to whether or not they should report to work and alternative routes they should take so we could facilitate their entry to the site.
It was a classic example of challenging our thinking and preparedness process. We had always used public address announcements and e-mail communication, but knew there was a better way to give our employees clear direction in an emergency. By using a targeted communications system, we were able to respond to an event quickly and appropriately.
Q. How is Palo Verde sharing information and best practices with other nuclear facilities?
Ray: We ask employees to attend audits and assessments at other nuclear energy facilities and bring back ideas on how we can improve our program, including emergency preparedness training. We also invite our industry colleagues to come to Palo Verde and examine our processes to give us a fresh perspective on our performance.
Unlike any other industry, the nuclear energy industry believes strongly in sharing operating experience and learning from the successes and challenges of our industry counterparts.
We regularly ask technical experts from other facilities to evaluate our processes and give us critical feedback in order to improve. We will continue to engage with the industry because that is what helps us innovate and enhance safety at our facilities.