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SPECIAL REPORT: Maximum scope for the radiation accident response exercise in Belarus

Society 19.10.2017 | 13:43

A radiation accident response exercise is in progress in Belarus on 18-19 October. The exercise began with a session of the Emergencies Commission under the Council of Ministers. The session chaired by Prime Minister of Belarus Andrei Kobyakov took place at the national center for control and response to emergencies of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry on 18 October. The exercise is taking place in line with the international commitments undertaken by countries that are about to commission major nuclear energy installations. The purpose of the exercise is to check the readiness of the rapid response system, which is crucial for working out plans for responding to emergencies outside the Belarusian nuclear power plant site among other things. Representatives of central government agencies, representatives of CSTO and CIS member states are taking part in the exercise. Assets and units of the Emergencies Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Healthcare Ministry, the Energy Ministry of Belarus and the Russian Emergencies Ministry were involved in the exercise, too.

Representatives of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry noted that the exercise relies on an impossible emergency with radioactive substances leaving the nuclear power plant site. In line with the scenario of the exercise a reactor of the nuclear power plant has suffered a major accident, the reactor pressure vessel has been broken open, and radioactive substances have escaped into the atmosphere.

The first stage of the exercise took place at the training facility of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry in Borisov District on 18 October. The first introduction to the exercise pointed out the fact that 448 power-generating units at 191 nuclear power plants are in use all over the world. Consequences of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant indicated that the loss of external power can disrupt the reliable operation of safeguards of a nuclear power plant, resulting in major accidents. This is why Belarusian rescue workers and Energy Ministry specialists had to practice extinguishing a fire at a power substation that feeds electricity to the nuclear power plant.

In line with the scenario due to technological disturbances in the operation of the backup energy system of the nuclear power plant a power substation experienced a voltage surge and a short-circuit fault. Power supply was cut off, an explosion happened and transformer oil caught fire. Emergencies Ministry specialists used a special fire engine with dry-powdered chemicals to extinguish the fire while observing all the safety precautions.

The next part of the exercise was complicated. A number of accidents occurred at the same time. First, the system for the emergency cooling of the active zone lost power and went out of order. The safeguards that passively dissipate heat via steam generators and hydrogen removal systems followed suit. Representatives of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry noted that such an occurrence was unlikely in the extreme, yet they practice dealing with it. “The overlapping events resulted in an accident beyond the design basis of the nuclear power plant. The reactor pressure vessel was damaged, hydrogen exploded, blast isolation devices went out of order, and radioactive substances leaked into the atmosphere. The hydrogen explosion left nuclear power plant technicians under the debris,” the Emergencies Ministry spokesman Vitaly Novitsky described the scenario of the event. He went on saying that units of the Emergencies Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Healthcare Ministry of Belarus, and the Russian Emergencies Ministry had to deal with this situation.

Aerial units of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry were the first on scene. The aviators took radiation measurements in the area from above. The rescue workers also determined radiation pollution areas and organized personnel evacuation. Sources of radiation were found and neutralized. People under the debris were found and taken to safety. The building on fire was extinguished. Victims were airlifted to the hospital.

Radiation and contamination control stations and a command center for dealing with consequences of the emergency were deployed at the training facility. The polluted zone was cordoned off. A mobile hospital of the Emergencies Ministry was deployed. Procedures for decontaminating personnel and hardware, which had been polluted with radioactive substances, were arranged. Personnel of the Emergencies Ministry and the Defense Ministry took care of that.

As a result of the nuclear reactor accident all the technological processes were disrupted and the fuel pipes leading to the diesel fuel tanks for backup power generators were depressurized. The fuel tanks exploded and caught fire. The shockwave damaged the plant and equipment that use explosive and hazardous chemicals, resulting in chemical pollution of the area.

Belarusian rescue workers extinguished the fuel tanks on fire and cooled the tanks nearby. Special fire engines for high-rise buildings and subsurface suppression were used in the process. A hydrazine torch was extinguished and gaseous ammonia was precipitated using a jet-powered gas-water fire engine. The command center for extinguishing the fire also worked at the site, said Vitaly Novitsky.

After that rescue workers, specialists of the Interior Ministry and the waste-recycling company Ekores demonstrated their skills in dealing with a railway accident. A large number of hazardous cargoes cross Belarus by rail, including radiation hazards. If an accident occurs in transit, it will result in combined pollution of the area with chemicals and radioactive substances. Special tactics and skills are needed on the part of rescue workers in such situations.

In line with the scenario of the exercise trains carrying radioactive materials and oil products crashed into each other and went off the rails. The response of Belarusian rescue workers was smooth. Radiation measurements were taken in the area and radiation and contamination control posts were set up. Aerial units of the Emergencies Ministry evacuated the victims. Sources of radiation were detected and neutralized using robots. Then hazardous items were put inside a temporary storage container using special loaders. Meanwhile, other rescue workers had to deal with the trains on fire.

A forest fire came last. Grass, shrubs, and trees in the area polluted by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident caught fire. There was the danger of the fire spreading farther. Aerial units of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry had to detect the fire and airlift fire fighters to the location. An Antonov-2 aircraft and a Mi-26 helicopter dropped water and special fire suppressants into the fire outbreak site. Ground vehicles of the Emergencies Ministry dealt with individual fires on the ground.

“Considerable territories in three countries, including Belarus, were polluted with radioactive substances due to the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Natural ecosystems in the exclusion zone and the evacuation zone sometimes catch fire,” said Vitaly Novitsky. “We've seen over 40 such fires over the last seven years, including at least ten transboundary fires,” said the official.

The practical part at the training facility in Borisov District was brief — the entire stage of the radiation accident response exercise lasted for about half an hour, with the active phase taking half that time. Within this short time Belarusian rescue workers demonstrated their skills on the ground and in the air. They once again confirmed the extremely fast response ability of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry and reaffirmed their readiness to handle any emergencies, including radioactive ones.

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