Friday, April 20, 2018

Practicing to protect the food supply post-disaster

Sonia Soelter
WSDA Emergency Management

Last month several WSDA staff participated in a multi-agency exercise to prepare for one of the least-known agency responsibilities: protecting the food supply after a
radiological incident.

PNW’s only nuclear power plant 

Columbia Generating Station near Richland
The Pacific Northwest has only one active nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generation Station (CGS). The federal government requires that nuclear facilities such as CGS demonstrate that they can appropriately respond to protect the public if there were an incident at the facility that resulted in the release of harmful levels of radiation. They demonstrate this readiness by having regular exercises that simulate nuclear incidents. Several local and state agencies participate in these exercises, including WSDA.

Protecting the food supply

WSDA plays a critical role ensuring the safety of the food supply both at the time of a radiological material release and in the months that follow. The agency has two main responsibilities:

  • Issuing an “ag advisory” which provides the community with advice about how to protect their food and water supplies from potential radiological exposure. 
  • Establishing food control areas to prevent contaminated food from entering the food supply chain. 

It was the first of these responsibilities – issuing the ag advisory – that WSDA staff practiced during last month’s exercise.

Practice makes perfect

WSDA’s Rapid Response and Emergency Management Program works closely with the Food Safety and Consumer Services Division, the Animal Services Division and the Communications Office to plan, prepare for, and practice for these events.

During the exercise, participants play out a fictitious scenario using real-world data. For example, the scenario may be that a malfunction has resulted in the release of a plume of radiation. Exercise participants then use real-time weather information to make decisions about how to respond to the incident.

During the exercise, WSDA food-safety staff work with county representatives to identify which counties may be impacted by the scenario. They use this information to draft the ag advisory, which is then coordinated with the other participating agencies and released to the media. Speed is key to getting the advisory out, so farmers and the public can take to protect food and water supplies before any potential exposure. The ag advisory recommends things like:

  • Sheltering animals.
  • Covering animal food and water supplies.
  • Not transporting agricultural products out of the area.

Feedback from other exercise participants, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency  (FEMA) which monitored and graded the exercise, was positive. WSDA staff have dramatically sped up the process for issuing the ag advisory over the years, and they continue to look for ways to improve.

The real-world implication for the public is that they will get information in time to take actions to protect our food supply, which is important for both the health of Washingtonians and our agricultural economy.

As WSDA practices for emergencies, we encourage residents to prepare as well. Check out our website for information about WSDA’s disaster response and how you can prepare for emergencies, such as a nuclear event.

Interested in learning more about the Columbia Generating Station? Check out the video below!