Originally created 08/13/97

SRS notifying state of false alarms



Stung by criticism that it failed to properly notify state authorities about nuclear alarms, Savannah River Site now sounds the bell almost weekly.

In the past month, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division was notified of false alarms five times, "and we're as happy as can be," Jim Hardeman, the agency's manager of radiation programs, said Tuesday. "This way we can feel certain that when we do have a real emergency, we know about it."

SRS has long agreed to inform Georgia and South Carolina emergency authorities of nuclear alerts. Opinions differed, however, on whether all or only significant alarms should be reported.

Earlier this summer, state officials complained they learned of so-called nuclear criticality alerts many hours after the fact, and in some cases not at all. During one such false alarm in June, 2,000 SRS employees were evacuated.

That incident prompted Georgia officials to write to Energy Secretary Federico Pena to express their concerns.

In an effort to resolve the matter, SRS officials met with state emergency planning officials late last month. They have now agreed to give prompt notification also of all alarms and to conduct a joint review of SRS' rules on such notifications.

"We're satisfied things on the right track," said Joe Farmer, a spokesman for the South Carolina Emergency Preparedness Division.

Because air and water monitors throughout the sprawling South Carolina defense plant are set to pick up very slight changes in radiation levels, they go off very easily, SRS officials say.

Sometimes technical problems also trigger the alerts. Until proven false, the plant treats them as real emergencies.