|Fig. 1: The NRC's 2012-2013 information digest perfectly illustrates how the security forces come together to protect against intruders.  (Courtesy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)|
Nuclear power plants are usually operated very safely and efficiently, but what happens when states of emergency occur? What procedures and guidelines do nuclear power plants have in place in order to minimize a possible disaster? Nuclear meltdowns do not happen extremely often, however when they do they can be very dangerous. Throughout history, we have seen disasters such as Fukushima and Chernobyl and these disasters have lived in infamy. Even though everything can be running very safely, natural disasters and other outside factors can play a role in causing destruction. But it's important to keep in mind that nuclear meltdown isn't the only thing that could classify as a nuclear emergency. Theft is also a big concern when dealing with nuclear power plants because if terrorists were to gain access to this nuclear material, then there is a possibility of them using it for the wrong reasons. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has four levels of emergency that nuclear power plants implement during times of emergency: 
"Notification of Unusual Events" - This is the first step in reporting something that could be a possible threat to safety.
"Alert" - This level deals with a possible "substantial degradation in level of safety" for the facility.
"Site Area Emergency" - This level is reserved for when a reactor is likely to fail.
"General Emergency" - This is the highest level of emergency and it is only used for when there is "actual or imminent reactor damage."
First, let's talk about how nuclear power plants go about preventing theft. The NRC requires power plants to take several precautions when dealing with nuclear materials. Now, theft isn't a huge issue in the U.S. perhaps due to this intense security surrounding nuclear power plants, but it's important to understand why they are and must be protected. Nuclear power plants are surrounded by heavy security. The nuclear power plant is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, as well as armed security officers. These officers patrol the grounds in order to ensure no one gains unwanted access to the facilities. Refer to Fig. 1 for all of the details about the security of nuclear power plants. It's one thing to have the physical materials covered, but what about cyber security? This is also a valuable asset for power plants and needs to be kept safe from hackers wanting to tamper with information from the facility. In order to keep reactor systems from being hacked, "nuclear plant reactor control systems are isolated from the internet to protect reactors. All nuclear power plants licensed by the NRC must have a cyber security program." 
So far we have talked about ways to prevent theft and states of emergency, but as history has shown, there are some cases you just cannot prepare for. So what happens in a nuclear facility when a "General Emergency" is issued to those at the power plant? First and foremost, everyone withing the facility would evacuate immediately. Those closest to the reactors are obviously the most at-risk personnel for large amounts of radiation and that exposure must be minimized. The good thing about nuclear power plants licensed with the NRC is that they are well planned out in terms of location. "The NRC defines two zones around each nuclear power plant. The exact size and configuration of the zones vary from plant to plant based on local emergency response needs and capabilities, population, land characteristics, access routes, and jurisdictional boundaries."  The first zone that is around 10 miles around the facility is usually evacuated to minimize exposure to radiation and the second zone ranging about 50 miles around the facility is primarily focused on reducing radiation exposure into natural resources.  Potassium Iodide is sometimes used in exposed people to help reduce the radiation absorbed into the thyroid.
© Dalton Schultz. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
 "2012-2013 Information Digest," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG-1350, Vol. 24, August 2012, p. 28.