Romania hosts nuclear disaster simulation
International exercise will test communication lines in event of catastrophe.
A nuclear power station in Romania will be the scene of a full-scale emergency operation this week, albeit a simulated one. Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will lead a team of eight agencies and 62 countries in testing responses to a Chernobyl-style nuclear accident.
The 39-hour operation will begin on 11 May at the Cernavoda power plant in eastern Romania. After a pretend accident, officials will enact reporting the emergency, evaluating necessary health measures for those exposed, and tracking weather patterns to see where the fallout will land and which neighbouring countries should be notified.
The exercise is a chance to test international communication lines, says Malcolm Crick, head of the IAEA's Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit in Vienna, Austria, from where officials will oversee the exercise. "We will be looking at how we coordinate requests for information and advice," he says.
The IAEA and its collaborators aim to simulate a nuclear disaster once every four years; the last was held in 2001 in the town of Gravelines, on the north coast of France. "It's a big event for us," says Crick. "It's like the Olympic Games; we don't go any bigger than this."
Although IAEA member states hold regular domestic safety drills, Crick adds, the chance to test readiness on an international scale is a valuable one.
Wednesday's proceedings will begin at an unspecified time in the morning, when the IAEA's Incident and Emergency Centre will receive details of a fictitious leak of radioactive matter from the plant. It will then notify collaborators including the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission, the World Meteorological Organization, NATO and Interpol. Real weather forecasts will be used to track the path that a release of fallout would take.
The response to a major leak, like the one following the explosion at the Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union in 1986, depends on effective communication, says Zhanat Carr, coordinator of the WHO's Radiation Emergency Medical Preparedness and Assistance Network. "No matter how ready you are, if there's no communication the response will not work," she says.
Carr's network consists of some 30 centres around the world, which are ready to dispense medical advice or dispatch a health consultant to the scene of an emergency if requested. Such consultants are prepared to make decisions such as whether to administer potassium iodide tablets to prevent thyroid damage in those exposed to fallout.
Meanwhile, Romanian domestic officials will check their own readiness to deal with a radiation leak, by staging an evacuation of nearby villages and testing lines of communication to countries that would be affected.