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Issues of the Environment: How prepared is Washtenaw County for a nuclear incident?

Washtenaw County emergency operations manager Benjamin Pinette
Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County emergency operations manager Benjamin Pinette


  • The ongoing invasion of the Ukraine by Russia and the damage done to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant has triggered global fears that a nuclear disaster greater than Chernobyl in 1986 could happen. Although this threat is far removed from southeast Michigan, harmful radiation has the ability to travel through air and water all across the globe. 
  • The risks from radiation are dose dependent; like light, radiation dissipates by the square of its distance. Those closest to the fallout are most likely to develop radiation-related illnesses. 
  • Washtenaw County has a preparedness plan in the event of a catastrophe, including a wartime attack, at the Fermi 2 nuclear facility about 30 miles from Ann Arbor along Lake Erie. In 2019, Ann Arbor passed a resolution to stockpile Potassium Iodide (KI) for dispersal to residents in the event of a nuclear disaster. Washtenaw County does not stock KI, but has access to the state’s stockpile. 
  • High-dose radiation from a close-range nuclear attack can cause death quickly via burns and general disruption of the cell division cycle that maintains vital functions like digestion, blood cell generation, and central nervous system function. But, even low doses of hazardous fallout isotopes degrades DNA and increases cancer risk over a lifetime. Thyroid and reproductive dysfunction are common at low doses of nuclear radiation exposure. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_nuclear_explosions_on_human_health)
  • The Washtenaw County Emergency Preparedness Guidelines and Handbook, ranks “nuclear attack” as 9th out of a possible 22 potential disaster scenarios. Details about what each household should have on hand to be prepared for such emergencies are contained in the guide. 
  • Benjamin C. Pinette, Emergency Operations Manager for Washtenaw County, heads up the nuclear disaster response for the Washtenaw County Office of the Sheriff. There is currently no imminent threat to the local nuclear plant or by war-related radioactive fallout, but he says the county is prepared with a feasible plan to protect lives and health, in either case.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and fears of wartime escalation in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are real. At the end of February, Vladimir Putin put his country's nuclear deterrent forces on high alert. He has also stated that U.S. and global sanctions against Russia are an act of war. I'm David Fair, and it's a situation that certainly gives us a lot to think about. Chances are we would be more likely to suffer direct consequence if there were a meltdown or other malfunction at DTE Energy's Fermi two nuclear power plant in Monroe County. But with the global situation, talking preparedness seems like a good idea for this week's Issues of the Environment. Our guest today is Benjamin Pinette. He serves as emergency operations manager for Washtenaw County, and thank you for making time for us today, Benjamin.

Benjamin Pinette: Well, good morning, Dave. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to speak. As you mentioned, it's a pretty current and relevant topic in many different regards.

David Fair: And with that in mind, do you find the Russian saber rattling as unsettling as many of the rest of us?

Benjamin Pinette: Well, yeah, certainly. I mean, this is an avenue that we haven't been down in over 30 years, what with the end of the Cold War and now with the escalation in Ukraine, I think it's extremely unsettling.

David Fair: Obviously, the prospect of a nuclear weapon being used anywhere is simply awful. It would create a tremendous loss of human life--of wildlife. It would contaminate land, air and water, and the repercussions would last generations. Have you studied any modeling of what a hit in proximity to us would mean?

Benjamin Pinette: Yeah, absolutely. You know, really, it's hard to plan for what any specific target area would be. We take really a comprehensive, all-hazards approach to our planning. We'll look at, you know, target areas, you know, either, you know, Metro Detroit area or potentially locally. It's hard to say exactly what any specific target could be. So, a more distant attack could expose us to just radioactive fallout, whereas a more localized attack could expose us to direct radiation hazards in our planning with that and the message that we give to the public and how you prepare for that will kind of differentiate depending on that particular type of incident.

David Fair: As you mentioned, we're only about 30 miles away from that Frenchtown Township in Monroe County Fermi two nuclear power plant. Let's consider what happened here in the United States as an example of what could happen. It was almost exactly 43 years ago, March 29th of 1979. The reactor meltdown occurred at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania that rated as a Level five accident. Has that accident informed modern safety measures and local preparedness plans when it comes to nuclear power facilities?

Benjamin Pinette: Most certainly, Dave. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I think, learned a lot out of that incident. And their guidance, currently, is really modeled after that incident. There are multiple emergency planning zones for facilities, such as Fermi. Really, that initial two-mile radius around a site is where you'd be most concerned about immediate contamination and evacuation measures. And then, outside of that two-mile radius, there's a 10-mile planning radius where there is more concern with radioactive fallout, where shelter-in-place would be very likely. And that could be an extended measure for those residents. And then, for the Washtenaw County area, we fall within the 50-mile emergency planning zone. And what that means for us is not necessarily evacuation. But, certainly, if there were an incident, we would be asked to shelter in place, which basically means that you go inside, you close and lock all your doors and windows, turn off your HVAC. So all your fans heating air conditioning systems, turn off electrical power. And then, go to the most interior room on an above-ground floor. Also, don't allow your pets to go outside and wait for public officials to provide additional instructions. So, when you shelter in place, you probably want to consider about 24 hours of being able to provide for yourself. That means having appropriate water, food. Depending on time of year, you'd probably want to consider having blankets or a sleeping bag. So, again, just being able to provide the basic necessities, including medication for that incident. And, again, within that 50-mile planning zone, really, our biggest exposure to radiation would be the effects on agriculture, food, water, so there would be considerable testing of our food sources and water supplies following an incident like that--to make sure that all of those systems and our resources are safe for consumption.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment and our conversation with Benjamin Pinette continues on 89 one WEMU. Benjamin is emergency operations manager for Washtenaw County. Beyond immediate response and mitigation, what is the adaptation plan moving forward?

Benjamin Pinette: It could be potentially short-term, or it could be very long-term. Obviously, prevailing winds during an incident are usually in our favor. However, that might not necessarily always be the case. So we would stand up our emergency operations center, obviously, following an event like that. And what that does is it brings together the resources that we would need to not only respond to but recover from an incident like that. So when you think of emergency operations, most people think your normal response agencies, your law enforcement, state police, your fire department, certainly, or hazmat team. But there's more that goes into that as well with our government agencies that would provide executive level support for funding county support to provide resources outside of the normal scope. We have a resource management who are tasked with going out and finding the additional sources of supplies that we would need to recover from that. Certainly, mass care with the Red Cross would be a crucial element and then our human services as well. They have contacts within all of our neighborhoods across the county, and they're really in touch with what those communities entail and the special circumstances that might be involved in recovering from an incident like this. So, we would bring all of those entities to the table. And, certainly, we've got great support from the state and the federal level as well during an incident like that. We'd probably exhaust a lot of our local resources fairly quickly, but that's when we would rely on outside state and federal assistance, and that could take some time. That can be 24 to 72 hours before those additional resources show up. But that's what would really help us, you know, recover long term from an incident like this.

David Fair: We've seen how badly the pandemic has stretched our medical facilities at times to the point of breaking on that front. How closely are you working with and coordinating in preparation for something that might occur on the nuclear front?

Benjamin Pinette: Well, we take really more of an all-hazards approach to that preparation. And, certainly, with the pandemic, we're much more in tune with our local public health officials, our medical facilities. While we don't necessarily directly prepare for a nuclear incident, we're constantly working to make sure that we've got adequate resources and relationships established. We've got appropriate contact information with those individuals and that they have access to the additional resources that they might need. So, we would rely on mutual aid resources there as well. Certainly, our local hospitals could become overwhelmed with transporting individuals. That could be a task as well. So, we would potentially bring in public transit. Certainly, EMS with Emergent Health and Huron Valley Ambulance would assist us with that. And so, we would look to outside resources outside the immediate area, if necessary, to house additional individuals and provide them the care that they need.

David Fair: When we consider the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the decades of research we now have on the aftereffects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear bomb testing in our country, and at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, what does that tell us about the ability to recover livability, suitable agricultural land, and the other ecological systems upon which we depend?

Benjamin Pinette: Well, certainly, we've learned a lot from those instances, and recovery can be very, very long-term. It changes the way we live a little bit. Our supply lines would certainly be impacted by an event like that. You know, you really have to look into additional housing capabilities, what our food supplies are going to be, and evaluate that. It's an extremely complex event and planning for that. You really just try to take into account all of the possible hazards that you could face. Thankfully, we are usually upwind from planning any incident like that which does put us on the right side. But you can't always bank on that. So, we'll prepare for any and all eventualities working with our partners.

David Fair: And, hopefully, we have to deal with absolutely none of it. Thank you so much for the time and information today.

Benjamin Pinette: Thanks, David. I really appreciate giving me the opportunity to speak.

David Fair: That is Benjamin Pinette. He serves as emergency operations manager in Washtenaw County and has been our guest on Issues of the Environment. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. For more information, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and HD One Ypsilanti.

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