In March of 2011, the east coast of Japan was rocked by a massive earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands of people, swept away entire communities and crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Five months later and half a world away, a powerful tornado descended on Goderich, Ont., killing one person and destroying the town’s historic square. Though untouched directly by either disaster, both were felt deeply at the Bruce Power nuclear complex on the shores of Lake Huron.
“In their own way, both events were catalysts for change that led to our Huron Challenge exercise in the fall of 2012,” says Bruce Power’s Brian Deevy, the project lead for what would become one of Canada’s largest ever emergency preparedness exercises.
“In Japan, we saw that a natural disaster could impact an operating nuclear power facility. In Goderich, we saw the devastation a tornado could have on a community just down the coast from our own facility.”
Led by Emergency Management Ontario in close cooperation with Bruce Power, Huron Challenge brought more than 1,000 participants together from roughly 70 government ministries, private businesses and non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross.
From August 15-19, they tested their collective ability to respond to a natural disaster impacting the north-east Lake Huron region, including Bruce Power. Situated nearly 250 km northwest of Toronto, Bruce Power is the largest operating nuclear facility in the world with eight reactors and 4,000 employees on a 2,300-acre site.
For a company that’s always been well prepared to deal with potential radiological emergencies, Huron Challenge offered Bruce Power a chance to test some of the post-Fukushima improvements made to its generating stations and emergency response organization.
However, to fully test its staff, company officials had to ask scenario developers to stretch their minds and devise a highly unlikely event that would cut all power to the site and damage its existing series of robust emergency backup generators. The challenge was finding a simulated natural disaster of the scale faced in Japan that would be believable for southern Ontario.
“Certainly, you can’t get tsunamis of that sort and earthquakes are relatively minor, by and large,” said Frank Saunders, Bruce Power’s vice president of Nuclear Oversight and Regulatory Affairs. “Tornadoes are possible, but not generally of that magnitude. We really just put all that aside and said, ‘What if? If it’s plausible, let’s look at it.’ ”
What the scenario mappers eventually devised was a series of severe storms that pounded the entire region over several days, punctuated by a simulated F3 tornado tearing through the heart of the Bruce Power site.
Under this scenario, company participants were able to stand up their new state-of-the-art Emergency Management Centre and test the use of the Incident Management System, which is a standardized approach to emergency management already used by most municipalities, government ministries and emergency response agencies.
It also gave them a chance to deploy a series of portable generators that can be brought directly to both generating stations to ensure they are powered should all other power sources be lost. Just as important, it allowed them to deploy newly-built pumper trucks that can draw water directly from Lake Huron to ensure coolant is provided to the site’s reactors and fuel bays. While the site already has emergency back-up power and water supplies, these new generators and pumpers add yet another layer of defence and Huron Challenge was their proving ground.
“The teamwork between plant operations and emergency response worked flawlessly and we were able to successfully demonstrate an additional method which could keep the reactors cool in the event of a total loss of power,” said Luc Parisotto, a Bruce B shift manager who participated in the exercise.
For frontline responders like Bruce Power fire chief Brian Cumming, the exercise proved the concept that they could supply the stations’ needs in even the most challenging of circumstances.
“We’ve been very, very good at dealing with simulated radiological incidences within each station’s protected fences. We just haven’t had that same mechanism for our site facilities – the small town that exists between the two generating stations,” Cumming said. “What we’ve been able to pull together since Fukushima is an all hazards approach that we now know will work as planned, thanks to Huron Challenge. We truly do have a coordinated emergency response organization to deal with any kind of situation we may encounter.”