Journalism in the Public Interest

U.S. Nuclear-Disaster Preparedness Hobbled by Uncertain Chain of Command

Emergency plans call for local officials to take charge first in a radiological disaster. How and when the federal government would step in isn’t so clear.


Exelon Corp.'s Dresden Generating Station nuclear power plant stands in Morris, Ill., March 19, 2011. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

If the United States faced a nuclear disaster, local governments would automatically take charge, followed by federal authorities if the crisis grew too big for local responders to handle. But this system has a flaw: The nation's emergency plans don't spell out when or how the transfer of authority would be handled, even though small delays could put thousands of lives at risk.

The timing of federal involvement is deliberately kept ambiguous in order to "forestall a conflict about who's in charge," said William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism and a Syracuse University law professor.

"We don't practice scenarios where state and local officials are overwhelmed from the get-go and the feds have to step in and take charge," Banks said. "The exercising and planning that's going on never forces a clarification of the answers to those questions."

The bottom-up system sometimes gives local authorities a staggering amount of responsibility. For example, officials in Grundy County, Ill., which has a population of just 48,000, are solely responsible for activating the first steps in the government's response to a crisis at the Dresden nuclear power station, even though almost 7 million Chicago-area citizens live within 50 miles of the plant.

The response plan for an emergency at Dresden illustrates how authorities might respond to a nuclear crisis.

According to state and local officials in Illinois, the first signs of a problem would likely be detected by Dresden's owner, Exelon, or by a monitoring system for nuclear plants run by Illinois' Emergency Management Agency. Exelon is required by law to report any incident of note to local and state officials within 15 minutes of when it occurs.

Unless Illinois' governor declares martial law, it would be up to the county sheriff, the chairman of the Grundy County Board or the director of the county Emergency Management Agency -- or their designated backups -- to activate the response plans, said James Lutz, the emergency management agency's current director. If they decide they need help, they can request support from the state or/and the federal government. But emergency plans don't specify under what conditions that should happen.

Like every county in Illinois, Grundy County writes its own emergency plans. Lutz said that these plans must meet federal standards, but the requirements give counties broad discretion to develop plans that take into consideration their varying resources. "There are rules, but the way you get to them is up to us," Lutz said. "It's somewhat open to interpretation, because the rules use words like 'in a timely manner' or 'without undue delay.'"

Sheryl Klein, coordinator of the Illinois Management Agency's Radiological Emergency Response Team, said the state requires only that counties meet the federal standards. The state's responsibilities, she said, include sending teams of scientists to affected areas to assess conditions and helping with radiation detection and decontamination at emergency shelters.

If state and federal help is called in, Klein said a unified emergency command system would be set up to coordinate decision-making. The roles the various agencies and governments would play are laid out in federal emergency plans, specifically the National Response Framework.

But those plans don't specify what conditions would trigger federal involvement, beyond broad terms such as states being "overwhelmed" and requesting federal assistance, or a declaration by the U.S. president. Banks, the Institute for National Security director, said in a recent paper that this ambiguity about when federal officials should wait for requests from the states -- or when they should take action on their own -- could create delays and confusion.

"Even minutes can make a tremendous difference in saving lives," he told ProPublica.

Even after the federal government becomes involved, the chain of command can be uncertain.

On March 13, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., wrote a letter to President Obama raising concerns that "no agency sees itself as clearly in command of emergency response in a nuclear disaster. ... One Agency official essentially told my staff that if a nuclear incident occurred, they would all get on the phone really quickly and figure it out."

A White House spokesman told ProPublica that government plans clearly establish who takes charge in different scenarios. Federal emergency plans include six different agencies that could potentially coordinate the response, depending upon which of 15 scenarios is triggered by the source and nature of the nuclear release.

Many observers, including Michael McDonald, the president of Global Health Initiatives, have warned that the emergency command system itself, adopted in recent years across all levels of government, would likely break down in a serious nuclear or radiological emergency, and that more flexible, adaptive systems are needed.

"It's so complex," McDonald said, "that these hierarchical, controlled systems can't handle it."

Right now, we are between a rock and a hard place— where the probable and possibly best choice for energy in the US is nuclear energy, despite the recent crisis in Japan. What can the United States learn from Japan’s disaster? How can we prevent such a tragedy here?  It is a scary thought—I hope that we can come through to handle it… especially if we learn from Japan…
Check out “Nuclear Energy: Lessons from Japan”:

All disasters are local. The tone of this article seems to indicate that locals simply wouldn’t be able to get the ball rolling. That’s absurd. I’m assuming that this author wasn’t provided the technical appendix which would specify the standard operating procedure for the radiation response.

Regarding what McDonald allegedly said: the current system of emergency command, known as the Incident Command System, as part of the National Incident Management System is very flexible and adaptive.


It appears that the rules need to allow flexibility in specifying which entity takes on the responsibility for addressing the initial response to a given incident. As part of the documentation available to every operator, there must be a chart showing the chain of command. The operators and their superiors all the way up the chain must be thoroughly trained and tested to be able to make decisions as quickly as humanly possible.

Guidelines in terms of allowable time span for action must be created for every step, and the training of the personnel must include discussions based on case studies.

If such guidelines and rules are being practiced currently, there is little reason to panic. Of course, one can never have a perfect solution, and all personnel must be given opportunity to perform to the best of their ability within the existing parameters.

Lastly, there must be regular drills. Correct responses must be as close to second nature as possible.

There are many documented examples showing that loss of life or injury has been vastly reduced when correct responses are executed quickly and calmly.

Charles H. Marston

April 8, 2011, 8:42 p.m.

One of the lessons of the Three Mile Island accident was that of unpreparedness at all levels.

Two examples:

1. Governor Thornburg was only a few months in office and he had a difficult time getting useful advice on whether or not to order an evacuation.  Evacuating a 5 mile radiius was not too great a problem but within a ten mile radius there were nursing homes, hospitals, and (I think) a prison.  Eventually Thronburgh proclaimed a voluntary evacuation of women and children but then he faced the problem of deciding when it was over.

2. A government official who recognized the potential value of potassium iodide to protect the thyroid from radioactive iodine arranged for prepartion and delivery of a large number of doses.  They were delivered on the Saturday of the accident but were then hidden in a warehouse because there was no obvious way to distribute them.  Of course there was no paperwork and the companies that provided the potassium iodide had difficulty getting reimbursed (if they ever did).

It’s worth noting that, while there was a meltdown, the mixture of fuel, fuel rods and control rods (dubbed corium by the cleanup team) did NOT melt through the reactor vessel.

Point taken! It seems there needed to be several “What If ” sessions in preparing for a Worst Case Scenario. I’m not sure that was done adequately, possibly due to the inevitable cost and time over-runs.

Michael Jefferis

April 8, 2011, 11:52 p.m.

One of the lessons of Japan’s current crisis is that their threshold for risk was too high.  The same can be said for the Soviet era plants at Chernobyl.  We have plants like the one that was wrecked by the combined action of earthquake and tsunami (so I have read).  Our threshold of risk is likewise probably too high. 

High risk thresholds underestimate the likelihood and severity of potential disaster.  For instance, locating a cooling pool well above ground is a clear case of high threshold risk estimation.  Locating plants on earthquake faults (we have done this) or next to the ocean (we have done this) or verging on central water ways (we have done this) likewise reflects too much confidence in safety systems. 

Perhaps our disaster plans should include taking any plant off line which was built with rosy assumptions about risk. 

Our enormous use of coal and petroleum products, which are now producing serious health effects (radiation leaks are just a faster disaster) takes place under very, very high thresholds of risk—so high, we can’t imagine doing anything about it, to our long term and permanent detriment.

Hey Gabe,

This says nothing about the competence of local governments., It simply acknowledges that some messes are simply too big for local resources to deal with.

And I will say this
The present system worked REALLY well in my hometown after Katrina.


The confusion this article describes was in full display in Louisiana in 2005.

Really interesting article, but it doesn’t leave me feeling that worried, honestly. The flexibility and adaptability Mr. McDonald talks about at the end is sort of built in to this structure.

It makes sense to me that no single agency would automatically be in charge, given the different scenarios that could unfold. It also makes sense that the localities should get the ball rolling. In an unprecedented disaster, the situation could be escalated very quickly, and the governor or the president could easily get the feds to take over.


April 9, 2011, 11:02 a.m.

Let our disaster response track record speak for itself.

Check out this Presidential Directive from the White House this week, then look upplan’s text to see details of federal plans and who is in charge:
MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE SUBJECT:    Unified Command Plan 2011 Pursuant to my authority as Commander in Chief, I hereby approve and direct the implementation of the revised Unified Command Plan. Consistent with title 10, United States Code, section 161(b)(2) and title 3, United States Code, section 301, you are directed to notify the Congress on my behalf. You are authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register . BARACK OBAMA ..

The biggest problem we have is that we don’t “anticipate” crises…we just wait until they happen and then try to figure out what to do.  I don’t care HOW many written instructions you have; if you don’t do a yearly drill, you won’t EVER know if they’ll work.  That’s the big problem, we need to do a practice drill where EVERYONE up to the President is involved and see where the problems lie.  We can’t just sit around and WAIT until something happens and then try to figure out why the written instructions don’t work!


April 11, 2011, 1:35 p.m.

That’s right, Didi Paano.  We should have been prepared for the Bush Administration disaster and now the Obama Administration’s disaster.

Unfortunately, in those cases, we practice every two/four years and still can’t get it right.

Add into this the two events in Southern California, First the 15 people arrested at a Border Patrol check point on I-8 dressed as Marines. in a van used stolen government plates. It is a short driving distance from the check point to Camp Penleton and Nuclear Power Plant at San Onofre. Then less than week later you have three Middle Eastern men trying to get on camp Pendleton. Camp Pendleton and Nuclear Power Plant San Onofre, two reactors, are right next to each other along I-5.  No one seems to be really worried about these two events. I know that it set off my alarm bells. But then I am a Army Vet.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Nuclear Safety

Nuclear Safety

With the disaster in Japan, we're investigating questions about nuclear safety.

The Story So Far

Following a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hydrogen explosions rocked three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Radioactive spent fuel stored in pools was also affected, especially at one reactor—the plant has a total of six—where multiple fires erupted. Evacuation orders were issued, potassium iodine tablets distributed, and plant employees used seawater and external electrical power to cool the stricken reactors, three of which had a partial core meltdown.

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