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Nuclear Neighbors Generating Alarm Some Residents Fear Area Plants Might Be Terrorist Targets
By Fredrick Kunkle and Raymond McCaffrey Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 11, 2001; Page C01
The night the sirens went off at the North Anna nuclear power plant near Mineral, Va., Peggy Hairfield's eyes snapped open.
Her husband started awake, too. Lying there in bed, a few miles downwind of the nuclear plant, she tamped down panic and wondered: Is this the big one? A meltdown? An accidental release of deadly radiation?
The couple held hands. They tuned the clock radio to an emergency broadcasting network to see whether they should evacuate their home about 90 miles southwest of Washington.
But it was only a false alarm. Unable to find a babysitter, a dispatcher in the Louisa County sheriff's office had brought a child to work who accidentally triggered the sirens.
The next day, life returned to normal, and for 3 1/2 years, the nuke next door became an afterthought -- until Sept. 11. Now the worries have started all over.
"You think about it while you're lying there. You think: Am I going to wake up tomorrow? Or am I going to lie here and die? Then you try not to think about it till next time," said Hairfield, a clerk in Mineral's Town Office.
At least the sirens worked. Last week, even as nuclear plant operators and government officials were on high alert, two-thirds of the sirens around the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, about 55 miles from the District in Southern Maryland, failed during a test.
"I didn't hear one of them," Dale Maxwell said as he gassed up his car in nearby Lusby.
Neither did anyone else in Calvert County, including people who live closest to the plant. Of 72 sirens within 10 miles, all 49 in Calvert remained silent during the test at noon Monday. A computer glitch was blamed.
Nuclear power plants have been generating more than electricity since the Sept. 11 attacks. Indeed, soon after hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some officials initially feared that a fourth plane could be bearing down on Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa. On Oct. 17, officials closed two nearby airports and scrambled fighter jets in response to a terrorist threat against TMI that was later deemed to be not credible.
Around TMI, scene in 1979 of the nation's worst nuclear power accident, that was enough for some residents to clamor for potassium iodide tablets, which block the body's absorption of radioactive iodine.
Lancaster County's Emergency Management Agency, which has stored enough tablets for emergency crews, has been referring callers to private labs.
"Some of the general public are concerned," said Randy Gockley, Lancaster County's emergency management coordinator. "The vast majority of people feel comfortable with the plants."
Maryland has one nuclear plant. Virginia has two, in Louisa and Surry counties, in central Virginia and Southside, respectively. Folks who live near them wonder what would happen if their nuclear neighbors became the next target.
Just last week, Rita Steele's 16-year-old grandson offered to build her an underground fallout shelter.
"Before, he would have never thought about it," said Steele, 50, who owns a bric-a-brac shop in Mineral. "Now, it even affects the kids, because they hear so much about it. It's scary."
Arms folded over a T-shirt that says, "Wherever I go, God goes with me," Steele said she has not given a lot of thought to what she would do, except get in a car and drive. She worries that radiation would spread too fast anyway.
"I'd probably try to get my nine dogs into the car. We probably wouldn't make it," she said.
Her neighbors are suddenly paying attention to calendars mailed out by the company that owns the North Anna plant that include detailed instructions on what to do in a crisis. The calendar lists evacuation centers, school evacuation procedures, escape routes and placards that residents can prop in their windows to show that they have exited their homes or need assistance to leave.
The calendar goes out to people in five counties surrounding the plant.
"I've been reading that, too, and this is the first year I've ever paid attention," said Pat Martin, who runs the Country Roads Cafe in Mineral.
For many, though, worry is an acceptable trade-off for facilities that provide more jobs than any other local business and pay at least 20 percent of the county's taxes. Others are simply fatalistic.
"If it blows up, it blows up," said Joseph Boggs Sr., whose home sits about a half-mile across Lake Anna from the plant.
One of the first to build on Lake Anna about 30 years ago, he's used to the low whine of the turbines coming across the glassy water like the hum of an air conditioner.
Boggs, who owns the Lake Anna Marina, said he also likes the way the lights from the plant play across the water at night.
"It's beautiful," he said.
There are 103 commercial nuclear power plants operating in 31 states. The day of the attacks, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission urged all to go to Level III, its highest level of security.
The NRC also reassured the public that nuclear power plants are built to withstand extreme events such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. But in a Sept. 21 news release, the agency also acknowledged that it had not contemplated attacks by airliners as big as the Boeing 767s that slammed into the twin towers.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Oct. 30 banned private aircraft below 18,000 feet and within 10 nautical miles of nuclear power plants. That order expired at midnight Tuesday.
In Virginia, Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) directed the National Guard and the state police to defend the state's nuclear plants. The Marine Resources Commission and the Game and Inland Fisheries Department are guarding waterways around the plants.
The North Anna plant, on the shore of man-made Lake Anna, has a capacity of 1,842 megawatts -- enough electricity to light a city the size of Albuquerque. The Surry nuclear power plant, with a 1,625-megawatt capacity, is on the James River across from historic Jamestown. Both are operated by Richmond-based Dominion Virginia Power, a division of Dominion Resources Inc. That company serves more than 2 million customers in Virginia and North Carolina.
Dominion intensified security before the NRC asked, said spokesman Richard Zuercher. Officials have conducted additional background checks on some employees. Media visits were banned. Public tours ceased.
But the plants -- ringed by razor wire, concrete barriers to thwart truck bombs and armed security guards -- were safe even before Sept. 11, Zuercher said.
The reactors and their cooling systems are below ground and encased in hardened structures, including a three-eighth-inch carbon steel liner. The domes -- whose shape is intended to minimize the impact from an aircraft crash -- are 2 1/2- to 3-foot-thick concrete reinforced with eight layers of steel bars.
Calvert Cliffs, operated by Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Group's nuclear division, also closed its visitors center, and jets from Patuxent River Naval Air Station have soared overhead on guard. But plant officials declined to say much else.
"We feel not discussing our security measures ourselves is in fact a security measure," plant spokesman Karl Neddenien said.
Neighbors worry about plans to reactivate the Cove Point liquefied natural gas plant, about two miles from Calvert Cliffs. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's go-ahead, announced Oct. 11, has drawn widespread criticism. U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) has urged the commission to rethink the notion of allowing foreign tankers to haul the fuel up the Chesapeake Bay past the nuclear power plant. On Friday, the agency agreed to reconsider its approval in light of national security concerns.
"The closeness of the two facilities is a concern," said resident Leonard Addiss. "If one goes, the other goes with it."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), November 11, 2001