IRVINE — Southern California Edison spends $1.5 million each year to simulate nuclear emergencies, and it was catastrophe time again Wednesday as 550 employees from at least 10 public agencies reacted to a mock incident at the San Onofre nuclear power plant.
The situation: a partial meltdown that released a radioactive gas cloud into the atmosphere, causing a mass evacuation of San Clemente, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano.
"We take this very seriously," said Bill Bromley, a San Onofre electrical engineer. "If anyone was laughing in there, they'd probably be tossed out."
Edison's Irvine office was turned into a bustling command center where city and company officials were grilled by reporters at hourly news conferences. At San Onofre, operated by Edison and situated just south of San Clemente, technical personnel searched for reasons why the meltdown happened.
"This drill is very important," said Kathleen Cha, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Department. "Everyone has (an emergency) plan, but the plan isn't good unless it works. This is badly needed practice in case a real emergency occurs."
In Irvine, the exercise is designed to get information out to the public. The major task is for several agencies--from the Marine Corps to local cities--to share information and make joint decisions.
During the drill, agency representatives gathered around a large table to coordinate evacuation plans and the closing of Interstate 5 near the nuclear plant. Present were officials from the California Highway Patrol, Marine Corps, the governor's office, American Red Cross, the cities of San Clemente, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano, and other agencies.
Meanwhile, in an adjoining room, a phone bank staffed by Edison workers served as an information conduit, passing along updates to the emergency team.
Every hour, representatives from cities and other public agencies filed into a warehouse to face the news media--actually, Edison employees, who nonetheless hit them with hard questions.
In one exchange, Edison spokesman David Baron was grilled about the worst scenario possible for the partial meltdown.
"We don't speculate on things that haven't happened yet," he replied.
"You don't plan for a worst-case scenario?" the reporter shot back.
"I didn't say that," Baron said, with a hint of real irritation in his voice.
Every other year, the emergency team's performance is graded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A bad grade could result in the San Onofre plant being shut down.
The inability to coordinate public agencies in case of a disaster was directly responsible for the 1989 closure of the Shoreham nuclear plant in Long Island, said Edison spokeswoman Sherry Foulson.
But the real wake-up call for the nuclear industry came after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979.
"There was no center where all information could be verified and passed along to the public," she said. "It resulted in all kinds of anxiety and concern. We have a responsibility to make sure that people don't panic."