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UT course teaches first responders how to stay safe in a nuclear incident


Representatives from the National Nuclear Security Administration attend a crisis communications seminar by University of Tennessee’s Institute for Nuclear Security, Monday, August 3. The next day, the Institute held a nuclear safety and security course for regional first responders. (Photo: Submitted by Tennessee Department of Homeland Security Region II)

The Institute contact Tennessee’s second Homeland Security District to put the course together for law enforcement officers from 16 East Tennessee counties.  Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Jenny Holden said the course filled up quickly and had a waiting list.

According to Holden, deputies from Anderson, Campbell, Knox and Monroe County Sheriff’s Offices attended the class, along with representatives from Knoxville Police Department, University of Tennessee Police, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and TVA Police.

“It’s always good to come and meet other agencies from around here,” TVA Police Director Todd Peney said after the class. “You’re seeing them in the classroom setting, so if something goes down, you’ve got people you can contact and ask questions to in law enforcement.”

Lessons learned

Hall and Institute Research Consultant Natalie Rice led the attendees through case studies of real nuclear events, like the Pelindaba nuclear attack in South Africa and the nuclear accidents in Fukushima and Chernobyl.

“Chernobyl is a tragic case where in many cases first responders’  lives were squandered by their government,” Hall said.

When the Chernobyl reactor blew up in 1986, hundreds of first responders received large doses of radiation as they scrambled to contain it. Nearly 50 died.

Soviet secrecy made matters worse. Nearby towns were not immediately evacuated. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates as many as 4,000 people who were exposed to radiation from the accident will die of cancer.

“The folks who were here today will ultimately be in leadership positions at their agencies,” Hall said. “We want them to have that experience to look back on and say ‘yeah, we need to make sure that we do these things right up front, because we don’t want to waste a life or injure an officer.'”

Rice said she was encouraged to see how many local first responders had already taken steps to address nuclear risks.

Howard Hall, director of University of Tennessee's

Howard Hall, director of University of Tennessee’s Institute for Nuclear Security (left) stands with Todd Peney, TVA Police director (right) after a nuclear security course. (Photo: Knoxville News Sentinel)

“They saw the problems with communication between the government and first responders on the ground at Fukushima,” Hall said. “Specifically, TVA said there were many things in the design of the Fukushima plant and the response to it that they have already addressed here in the United States.”

Peney, whose job at TVA would put him on the front lines of a nuclear plant accident, said he felt confident after studying the Fukushima accident in the course that TVA was prepared to prevent it from happening again.

“That is a fantastic thing to hear when you’re looking at a nuclear disaster, hearing that they know how to do something like that,” Rice said.

Above all, Hall said the three things he hoped responders took away from the course were time, distance and shielding, which are three guidelines for controlling radiation exposure.

“If you’re going to be exposed to radioactive material that is potentially hazardous to people, you want to be there as short a time as possible,” he said. “You want it to be as far away from you as you can reasonably work with and still accomplish your mission, and if possible you want something nice, large and heavy between you and it.”

Knoxville News Sentinel