First effects of Midwest radiation leak would be on food supply

Most likely, a radiation leak at the D.C. Cook Nuclear Power Plant in Michigan would primarily endanger local farms, backyard gardens and dinner plates.

Posted on March 21, 2011 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on March 21, 2011 at 2:57 a.m.

GOSHEN -- Most likely, a radiation leak at the D.C. Cook Nuclear Power Plant in Michigan would primarily endanger local farms, backyard gardens and dinner plates.

Elkhart County is within a 50-mile radius of the nuclear facility and lies directly in the so-called Ingestion Pathway, according to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. This means the food supply, such as the dairy cows, the vegetables and the water, are considered the most vulnerable to contamination in the event of an accident at one of the two reactors.

Officials would be concerned not just with the food that stays here but with potentially harmful produce and milk leaving the county and possibly sickening residents who live several states away.

In addition to watching the food, the public safety personnel would also work to make sure people in the danger zone know what to do, the IDHS said.

Although Indiana is not home to any nuclear power plants, the northwest corner of the state is down wind for two plants in Michigan and two in Illinois. The closest is Cook while the other Michigan plant, the Palisades Power Plant, is located farther north along the lake shoreline in Covert.

In Illinois the two plants are the Braidwood Generating Station in Braceville and the Dresden Generating Station in Morris.

The state's Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program covers the top portion of Indiana as far west as Lake County, as far east as LaGrange County and as far south as Kosciusko County.

Answers to the questions of what exactly would happen after a leak all begin with "it depends, it depends, it depends," said Emily Norcross, spokeswoman for the IDHS.

If radiation is released from the power plant and goes beyond the 650-acre campus, Indiana Michigan Power, which owns and operates the facility, would contact the St. Joseph County, Mich., sheriff's office as well as the Michigan State Police, said Bill Schalk, Cook spokesman.

Residents living within a 10-mile radius of the operation would be evacuated immediately. Plans for this scenario are so detailed, Schalk said, that law enforcement have already marked on which corners officers will be placed to direct traffic.

Michigan State Police would then alert IDHS, Norcross said. In turn, Indiana state officials would coordinate a response with local officials in the affected counties.

Training for this type of emergency has been ongoing in Elkhart County and on Oct. 31, 2012, public safety officials will participate in a national exercise designed specifically for a nuclear accident.

"We don't wait for something to happen then react to the emergency," said Jennifer Tobey, director of the Elkhart County Emergency Management agency. "This is something we've actually been doing for quite awhile and we will keep doing."

State and county officials would likely focus their efforts after a radiation leak on testing, Norcross said. Weather conditions and the season along with the amount of radiation emitted would all determine how and what gets sampled.

Farmers might be instructed to not let their livestock graze or drink from a creek, Norcross said. Or residents might be advised to not eat food from their gardens or to wash the vegetables with soap and water before consuming. Also because the radioactive isotopes decay rather quickly, neighbors may be told to wait a week before eating any locally-grown produce.

If the leak is severe enough, Tobey said residents could be advised to stay in their homes.

The basic strategy for a radiation leak would be the same as for any other type of disaster, Tobey said. County responders would determine what happened, gather the appropriate personnel, set up a command center and bring the "decision makers" together. Meanwhile, the public would be instructed to be prepared as they would for other emergencies by having such things as a 72-hour supply of food, water and medicine in their homes, and a battery-powered radio.

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