Is the county safe from nuclear disaster?

Explosions and fires rocked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan just days after the country was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in mid-March.

Weeks later, a large-scale nuclear disaster was avoided, for now. The near-catastrophe drew worldwide attention to nuclear power and the potential dangers of radioactive materials. The United States government recommended a 50-mile evacuation zone around the site to avoid harmful radiation in Japan.

Parts of Catawba County are within 10 miles of Duke Energy's McGuire Nuclear Station, leaving many to wonder what county residents should do if and when a nuclear disaster occurs.

What is McGuire Nuclear Station?

McGuire Nuclear Station, located in Huntersville, is one of three nuclear facilities operated by Duke Energy in North and South Carolina.

Duke Energy has about 2.2 million customers in the Carolinas, and about half of that energy is generated through nuclear power. About 1,200 employees work for the McGuire Station, as part of a total Duke Energy workforce of 18,000.

The facility started energy production in 1981 and will celebrate 30 years of operation this year, said Duke Energy communications manager Valerie Patterson.

During that time, the facility hasn't had any major nuclear disasters like the one reported in Japan.

"Certainly over the years, we've had some operational challenges," Patterson said. "We are an industrial organization. We do produce electricity, but those certainly haven't been challenges we haven't been able to overcome."

McGuire Nuclear Station uses pressurized reactors to produce power, unlike the facility in Japan, which uses boiling reactors. Duke Energy doesn't have any boiling-water reactor facilities, but those facilities exist other places in the country.

The difference in reactor design, however, won't stop Duke Energy from learning from the nuclear plant event in Japan.

"Events in Japan are still unfolding, so we are certainly in no position to point to where things went wrong," Patterson said. "In the nuclear industry, we are keen and extremely focused on learning from each other. Whatever operational experience will come out of the events in Japan, we are watching very closely so we can learn from what happened there."

How is Catawba County involved?

The Sherrills Ford area in Catawba County is part of the McGuire plant's 10-mile radius. Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln and Mecklenburg counties are also included within the 10-mile radius, also known as the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ).

Catawba County's specific EPZ is bordered by N.C. 150 on the north, the Catawba County line on the south, Lake Norman on the east and N.C. 16 on the west.

What to do during an emergency

Patterson said Duke Energy nuclear facilities, as well as other nuclear stations in the country, are built with "redundant, but physically separated, safety features" to withstand natural disasters and other emergencies.

Duke Energy plants are built to withstand the largest-known earthquake to hit the area surrounding the plant. That means Duke Energy's facilities will withstand a repeat of the 7.3-magnitude, Charleston, S.C., earthquake of 1886, Patterson said.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the 1886 quake is the most damaging earthquake to occur in the southeastern United States.

"Public health and safety is able to be maintained even in the unlikely event that we deal with hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados," Patterson said.

Although the likelihood of a nuclear disaster is rare, Duke Energy has procedures in place to ensure safety of employees and residents.

The response to an emergency situation varies depending on many factors, including the type of emergency, as well as weather conditions, Patterson said.

Nearby residents are notified of a problem at McGuire Nuclear Station in several ways to ensure all people, regardless of where they are, know about the potential dangers.

Station officials sound sirens to alert people who are outdoors when the emergency happens. When a siren sounds, people are encouraged to turn on their televisions and look for news alerts about an impending nuclear situation.

Catawba County has one site, Patterson said. The county also acts as a "host county," where residents of nearby counties can seek refuge in the event of a disaster.

Duke Energy partners with other government agencies to make recommendations about what actions should be taken during a disaster.

Government officials then decide the course of action for residents, whether that is evacuation, staying indoors or taking potassium iodide tablets.

Potassium iodide (KI) is a non-prescription drug similar to iodized table salt and can prevent the body's thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine. KI tablets are available to residents in the EPZ at no cost through each county's health department. Catawba County distributed free KI tablets in September to residents living within the 10-mile EPZ. That was the first time the tablets were distributed to residents and businesses since 2002.

"It's a well-coordinated effort between Duke energy, state officials and the federal government," Patterson said. "We're going to be in close contact and working very closely with state and county and federal officials."