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Mother Nature and nuclear reactors prove powerful allies for communications advocates

Emergency phone and Internet systems have been deployed for federal radiological responders to aid Virginia's North Anna nuclear power plant in the event any problems develop as a result of Tuesday's earthquake or the arrival of Hurricane Irene, agency officials said.

But there are no such dedicated communication lines between the facility and local police departments, fire stations or emergency medical services. Public safety advocates say this missing link underscores the need for a coast-to-coast wireless network for first responders. Currently, first responders communicate across jurisdictions through commercial voice and data services. Following the 5.8 magnitude earthquake, cellphone lines were jammed along the East Coast.

The earthquake cutoff electricity running two nuclear reactors at Dominion Virginia Power's North Anna Power Station, located less than 15 miles from the epicenter, forcing the reactors to automatically shutdown, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials. The event triggered an alert at the facility -- the second-lowest of four emergency classification levels. Onsite NRC inspectors continue to monitor the plant.

The commission provides each licensed facility, including North Anna, with an array of communications such as an emergency notification system for reporting incidents. Category 3 Hurricane Irene is expected to sweep through the area surrounding the Virginia plant this weekend.

Separately, the National Nuclear Security Administration has set up a reliable connection for exchanging voice, data and video with 55 sites and mobile units across the country during emergencies, NNSA officials said Wednesday. The exclusive network harnesses leased lines and satellite transmission to keep the secretary of Energy informed. When not needed for NNSA operations, the agency can lend a dedicated mobile line to local officials for their own response activities, officials said.

But, on Tuesday, neither NRC's nor NNSA's networks could help local responders communicate with each other across towns or state boundaries, noted Paul Wormeli, executive director emeritus at the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute.

"Both the land line and wireless networks from here in Philadelphia to the Washington area were useless" after the earthquake, said Wormeli, who was unable to reach his wife in the Capitol Region. "There has never been a better example on the East Coast of why we need a dedicated communications capability for public safety."

NRC spokeswoman Holly Harrington said nuclear facilities are required to have numerous direct or indirect communications lines to local and state emergency operations centers. "They also have commercial phone lines that we use to contact their control rooms, security organizations and load dispatchers," she said.

The commission's networks are reserved for, among other things, exchanging information between plant operators and NRC responders if a nuclear release is imminent. The agency also maintains a line for internal communication between on-site NRC responders and headquarters. And there is a link assigned to the NRC responders for sharing updates with each other in the field.

Wormeli said that while the regulator's arrangement offers backup technology for nuclear facilities to communicate with NRC, it does not provide the plants with similar reinforcements to communicate with hazmat and other local teams that would need to contain any damage.

"They indicate that the plant operator would have to use commercial phone lines to alert local dispatchers regarding a disaster happening and to keep them informed of changes in status," he said. "This would not help if the earthquake caused a similar overload to the communications that connect either wirelessly or via landlines such that they are all occupied by other callers."

NNSA's emergency network, if made available to local response teams, could present a partial solution. It would let public safety officials hook up their own laptops to the agency's dedicated Internet, NNSA officials said. Dial-up videoconferencing also would be offered to local officials, if not deployed for agency activities.

Typically, NNSA's on-site operations involve gathering data about contamination and providing advice to decision-makers at local jurisdictions on dealing with the aftermath of an event. For instance, an NNSA recommendation to "shelter-in-place," or to stay inside away from ventilated areas, would be issued only after discussions throughout the chain of command, agency officials said. First, the government field team would share ground observations with agency analysts to determine whether such advice makes sense. If so, then the team would inform state and local officials, who in turn would notify the public.

"Having the availability of fast voice and data access throughout a response force is important," Wormeli said. "But if it is constrained by the decisions of NNSA or internal NRC executives this means that the availability of open channels is not under the control of the public safety task force that is called upon to respond."

Tuesday's episode has renewed calls for a reliable wireless system that would allow state and local public safety officials to counsel each other across jurisdictions. Pressure on lawmakers to allocate spectrum known as the D-Block already had been ramping up ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"The earthquake once again confirmed our knowledge that during significant events like the earthquake the public quickly uses all of the bandwidth in commercial systems and therefore the public safety practitioners are not able to gain access to these networks," said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corporation.

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