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Environmental Issues: How prepared is Washtenaw County to handle a nuclear accident?

Environmental Issues: How prepared is Washtenaw County to handle a nuclear accident?


  • Global fears have been raised about a possible nuclear disaster that could be worse than Chernobyl 1986 due to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. This threat is far from southeast Michigan, but harmful radiation can travel through air or water around the world. 
  • Radiation exposure is dose dependent. Radiation dissipates proportionally to its distance. Radiation-related diseases are most common for those living near the radiation source. 
  • Washtenaw County has a preparedness program in case of a disaster, including a wartime strike, at the Fermi 2 nuclear plant, which is located 30 miles from Ann Arbor, along Lake Erie. Ann Arbor passed a resolution in 2019 that required it to stockpile Potassium Iodide for dispersal to residents in case of a nuclear emergency. Washtenaw County doesn’t have KI but has access the state stockpile. 
  • High-dose radiation from a nuclear attack at close range can quickly cause death via burns and disruption of the cell division cycle. This cycle is vital for maintaining vital functions such as digestion, blood cell production, and central nervous system function. Even low doses can still cause dangerous fallout. Isotopes damages DNA and increases cancer risk for a lifetime. Low doses of radiation exposure can cause thyroid problems and reproductive dysfunction. (Source:
  • The Washtenaw County Emergency Preparedness Handbook and Guidelines,Nuclear attack is ranked 9th of 22 possible disaster scenarios. The guide contains details about what each household should have to prepare for such emergencies. 
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  • Benjamin C. Pinette is the Emergency Operations Manager for Washtenaw County. He oversees the response to nuclear disasters for the Washtenaw County Office of the Sheriff. He says there is no immediate threat to the nuclear plant or to radioactive fallout from war-related events, but the county has a plan in place to protect lives and property in both cases.


David Fair: This is 89 WEMU. There are real fears of wartime escalation following the Russian invasion. Vladimir Putin placed his country’s nuclear deterrent force on high alert at the end of February. He also stated that U.S. sanctions against Russia are war crimes. David Fair is my name and this situation gives me a lot to consider. We would likely be more vulnerable to direct consequences if the Fermi 2 nuclear power plant in Monroe County were to fail. However, given the global situation, discussing preparedness seems like an excellent idea for this week’s Issues of the Environment. Benjamin Pinette is our guest today. He is the emergency operations director for Washtenaw County. Thank you Benjamin for taking the time to speak with us today.

Benjamin Pinette: Good morning Dave. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak. It’s a very current topic that is relevant in many ways, as you mentioned.

David Fair: Do you find the Russian sword rattling as alarming as the rest of the world?

Benjamin Pinette: Well, yeah, certainly. This is an avenue we haven’t been down for over 30 years, with the end to the Cold War and now with escalation of Ukraine, I find it extremely disturbing.

David Fair: The possibility of a nuclear bomb being used anywhere in the world is horrendous. It would cause a huge loss of life and wildlife. It would contaminate water, land, and air, and it would have long-lasting effects. Have you ever done any modeling of what a hit within close proximity to us might look like?

Benjamin Pinette: Yeah, absolutely. It’s difficult to plan for specific target areas. Our planning is comprehensive and all-hazards. We’ll consider target areas either in the Metro Detroit area or locally. It’s difficult to know what specific target might be. A more distant attack could result in radioactive fallout. However, a localized attack could lead to radiation exposure. The message we send to the public about how to prepare for such an incident will differ depending on the type of incident.

David Fair: As you mentioned, we are only approximately 30 miles from the Monroe County Fermi Two nuclear power station in Frenchtown Township. Let’s look at what happened here in America to give you an idea of what could happen. It was March 29th 1979, almost exactly 43 years ago. Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania was the location of the accident. It was a Level five accident. Is the accident a lesson for modern safety measures and preparedness plans in relation to nuclear power facilities?

Benjamin Pinette: Dave, it is. I think the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took a lot of lessons from that incident. Their current guidance is based on the incident. There are many emergency planning zones for facilities such as Fermi. The initial two-mile radius surrounding a site is where you should be most concerned about immediate contamination or evacuation measures. Then, beyond that 2-mile radius, there is a 10-mile planning area where radioactive fallout is more likely, and shelter-in-place is very possible. This could be extended for those residents. For the Washtenaw county area, we are within the 50 mile emergency planning zone. This does not necessarily mean that we need to evacuate. However, in the event of an emergency, we would be asked for shelter in place. This basically means that you lock and lock all doors and windows and turn off your HVAC. Turn off the electrical power to all your heating and air conditioning units. Next, go to the highest interior room on an upper-ground floor. You should also make sure your pets are not allowed to go outside without waiting for the public officials to give you additional instructions. When sheltering in place, you should be prepared to take care of yourself for 24 hours. This means you need to have water and food. Depending on the season, you might want to have blankets or a sleeping bag. Again, being able provide basic necessities and medication for the incident. The radiation effects on agriculture, food, and water would be our greatest exposure. There would be significant testing of our food sources, water supplies, and other resources following an incident such as that.

David Fair: The Environment and our conversation continues with Benjamin Pinette on 89 One WEMU. Benjamin is the emergency operations manager for Washtenaw County. What is the future adaptation plan?

Benjamin Pinette: It could be temporary or it could last a very long time. It is obvious that the prevailing winds during an event are often in our favor. But, this might not always be true. After an event like this, we would immediately set up our emergency operations centre. It brings together all the resources needed to not only respond but also recover from an emergency like this. When you think about emergency operations, most people think of your normal response agencies, your state police, your fire department or hazmat team. There’s more to it than that. Our government agencies provide executive support for funding counties and other resources beyond the normal scope. We have a resource management team that is responsible for finding additional supplies to help us recover from the disaster. Mass care with the Red Cross and our human services would be crucial. They are in touch with all the communities in the county and can help you understand the unique circumstances of recovering from an accident like this. We would bring all those entities to this table. During an incident like this, we have the support of the federal and state governments. Although we’d exhaust most of our local resources quickly, that’s when we would need to rely on federal and state assistance. That could take some time. This could take up to 24 hours before additional resources are available. But this is what would really help us, you see, recover long-term from an incident like that.

David Fair: We have seen the extent to which the pandemic has strained our medical facilities, sometimes to the point that they are unable to function. How closely do you work with others and coordinate in preparation for a nuclear disaster?

Benjamin Pinette: That preparation is more risk-based. With the pandemic, we are much more in touch with our local health officials, and our medical facilities. Although we don’t always prepare for a nuclear event, we do make sure we have the right resources and relationships. We ensure that we have contact information and access to any additional resources for those people. Also, mutual aid resources would be a good option. Our local hospitals could be overwhelmed by the task of transporting people. It could be a daunting task. Public transit could be an option. Certainly, EMS With Emergent Health and Huron Valley Ambulance will be able to assist us. If necessary, we would seek out outside resources to provide additional care and housing for those in need.

David Fair: What does this tell us about our ability to recover livability, suitable land for agriculture, and other ecological systems that we rely upon?

Benjamin Pinette: We’ve learned a lot and recovery can be very, VERY long-term. It can change the way we live. A similar event would have a significant impact on our supply lines. You need to assess whether we have enough food supply, how much housing is available, and what additional housing options are available. It’s a complex event that requires planning. It’s important to consider all possible risks. Fortunately, we are often upwind of any incident like that which helps us stay on the right side. However, you can’t always count on it. We will work with our partners to prepare for all eventualities.

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David Fair: We should have to deal with none of it. We are grateful for your time and information.

Benjamin Pinette: Thanks, David. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity.

David Fair: Benjamin Pinette is that man. He is the emergency operations director in Washtenaw County. This weekly feature is produced in partnership by the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. It airs every Wednesday. For more information, please visit WEMU dot org. David Fair is my name. This is Eighty-Nine One WEMU FM.

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