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WIPP TREX – The Full Scale Exercise

Dorothy Jubon, Emergency Preparedness Training Coordinator

Trucks filled with radiation waste travel frequently through our area along I-20 as they move between Savannah and Carlsbad, New Mexico.

What would happen if there was a traffic accident involving one of these trucks? How dangerous are they to the general population? Would the First Responders in the area know how to best handle the situation? These are necessary questions in need of accurate answers.

The containers used to transport the radiation waste are incredibly sturdy.  Some of the ways they are tested include being dropped 30 feet from an airplane onto re-enforced concrete and burned at 1475° Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. Still, caution is used and training sessions (exercises) move forward.

In order to get the answers and supply the needed training, a planning committee was formed and WIPP TREX 2012-1, a Full-Scale training exercise for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant transportation began.

The planning committee consisted of federal, state and local participants, an alphabet soup of people.  There were 103 organizations involved when the exercise was completed, including  DOE (Department of Energy), DNR (Department of Natural Resources), DOT (Department of Transportation), GEMA (Georgia Emergency Management Agency), local Public Health, hospitals, and many more.

To pull this many people together is a lengthy process.  Following the HSEEP (Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program) process, the planning meetings began a year earlier.  Starting small with a discussion of the goals, offering classes to fill in knowledge gaps, building to a 100+ person tabletop exercise and finally to the Full Scale Exercise in April 2012.

The exercise scenario was a traffic accident involving the WIPP TREX truck, a school bus full of teenagers, plus several cars.  Students from the Newton County Public Schools Drama Department were enlisted and made up to look like they had been in a traffic accident.  Manikins were put in place as non-survivors, cars were mangled and the scene was set.  The exercise call was made to 911 and observers stood back to see how things transpired.

The important questions to be answered … Would the First Responders do as taught and treat the seriously injured victims first and worry about the radiation issues secondary?  Would the sound from the teenagers scream/acting deafen all of us?

To the great pleasure of the DOE, DNR, and GEMA participants, all went as hoped.

The initial responders, seeing the Radioactive Materials warning sign, looked at the scene first through binoculars and saw no sign of damage to the containers.  They then approached cautiously to triage (assess the level of care needed) the victims.  After the triage, the first responders went back and used their Geiger counters to verify that there was indeed no radiation hazard.

The exercise was successfully completed and a good day was had by all!