Thursday, June 22, 2000

Flats drill runs smoothly

Hundreds participate in
$350,000 emergency exercise

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

GOLDEN -- Emergency alarms wailed across the Spartan compound of the now-former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant Wednesday morning, prompting the quick arrival of machine-gun-toting security guards, respirator-wearing firefighters, and radiological control technicians donned in white jumpsuits.

Fortunately, the furious activities were all just part of a drill -- an annual exercise designed to test the emergency response skills of Rocky Flats workers.

"We try to make it as realistic as possible," said Karen Lutz, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Energy. "People involved in the exercise don't know what kind of incident they're responding to until they get there."

This year's simulated emergency involved a fire in the Drum Storage Area of Building 374, which is -- in reality -- right next to the building where all of the plutonium at the facility is now being consolidated.

According to the scenario, which was drafted for the DOE by Excalibur Associates, Inc., the problems began when two maintenance workers were preforming welding operations in a building with an inoperable sprinkler system.

The welding machine short-circuited, according to the script, resulting in the fire and the near-fatal electrocution of one of the workers. The fire then supposedly ignited some nearby plywood shipping crates and other flammable materials stored in the room. The heat from the fire then caused the tops to blow off some nearby waste drums, which resulted in the release of radioactive materials into the room. When a loading dock door was opened, the radioactive materials were released to the outside environment.

Official observers and evaluators closely watched how workers behaved Wednesday morning as the exercise progressed. As the alarms wailed, some of the first responders to the scene were members of Rocky Flats' heavily-armed security force.

"In the paranoia of security, you have to assume that when something happens, it's a symptom that something else is happening -- or it's a ruse," said Hank Dalton, the DOE assistant manager for facilities disposition at Rocky Flats.

The Rocky Flats Fire Department was next to arrive on the scene. Adorned in protective garb, the firefighters entered the building to combat the blaze and to recover several injured workers. As ambulances simulated the transport of the injured workers to area hospitals, a team of radiological control technicians surveyed the perimeter of the building for signs of radioactive contamination.

Radiation levels along the perimeters of the loading dock were significantly above background levels, according to the script.

"They plot wind direction and speed to determine where the plume of contamination is likely to go," Dalton said.

According to the exercise scenario, the media was officially advised of the incident one hour and 10 minutes after the first alarm sounded.

In real life, all disaster-related communications would be coordinated by Rocky Flats and Colorado State emergency personnel from the Joint Information Center at Camp George West in Golden, Dalton said. Moreover, any Rocky Flats worker who sustains an injury serious enough to require transportation off-site will be in good hands, Dalton added.

"We've got agreements with the local hospitals for what to do and how to do it," he said.

As of press time, this year's Rocky Flats emergency preparedness exercise was still being evaluated. But according to Lutz, it appears that the simulation went off without a hitch.

"All indications are that we met all of our objectives," she said.

About 300 people participated in this year's simulated emergency, including employees of area hospitals. The total cost incurred by the exercise topped $350,000, according to Lutz. The last significant, bona-fide "emergency" situation at Rocky Flats occurred in 1994, when a lightning strike started a small grass fire in the plant's buffer zone, Lutz said.