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Training exercise involving nuclear waste held for first responders

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COVINGTON -- First responders from four counties, including Newton and Rockdale, and the cities of Covington and Conyers, as well as multiple state and federal agencies, were on the scene Tuesday morning of a horrendous traffic crash involving several vehicles, a school bus and a truck transporting nuclear waste. Thankfully, it was just for practice, but it could happen and if it does, invaluable experience has been gained by the practice drill.

Heading up the mock disaster was the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), along with Emergency Management Agencies from Newton, Rockdale, Walton and Morgan counties.

The simulated crash, which included four mock fatalities and at least 30 participants who feigned injury, has been two years in the making.

Those professionals participating underwent extensive training in order to know how to respond to the catastrophe, which involved the truck transporting nuclear waste.

U.S. Department of Energy Manager of Institutional Programs William Mackie was on the scene for the training.

"We go all over the country along our routes and conduct full-scale exercises like this," he said, adding that Interstate 20 is the conduit that is traveled from the Savannah River National Laboratory to Carlsbad, N.M., home of the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Program). There nuclear waste is taken out into the desert and buried 2,150 feet below ground in the middle of a salt mine.

"What we're doing is training these people on how to respond to an accident that involves a radioactive waste shipment. The goal of this is to train them so they don't have to be afraid of this," he said.

Mackie described the cask used to transfer the waste as "very robust, lead-lined" and said there was actually zero probability that it would ever leak. But, in an abundance of caution, all care is given to prepare for such an emergency. First responders here have been thoroughly trained on what they can and cannot do.

Representatives from 25 different agencies participated just as if the crash site on a lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 278 between Covington and Social Circle was authentic. A call was placed to 911, which began dispatching those needed to deal with the disaster. A lone deputy sheriff arrived first on the scene; next came the fire department; traffic control, ambulances and so on.

About 50 students from the drama departments of Newton County high schools were on the scene in full make-up, pretending to be injured. Their screams of agony and pleas for help added reality to the scene. The script called for four fatalities and injuries ranging from slight to near-fatal.

Both Rockdale and Newton medical centers participated in the mock drill, but to save time, money and traffic congestion, an identical set of students with the same types of injuries were at the hospitals to prevent having to actually transport them from the scene.

One of the other important aspects of Tuesday's drill was to make sure that the men and women from the multi-jurisdictional agencies could communicate via their radios and would be familiar with working together as a team should they be called upon to pool resources.

Also, the Georgia National Guard was on hand to help with logistics and agencies like the American Red Cross and Public Health were on hand to use the could-be disaster for their personnel to train, as well.