The Commonwealth of Virginia is home to two nuclear power stations, North Anna (Louisa County) and Surry (Surry County). Both power stations are operated by Dominion Energy.
What is radiation? (source: Dominion Energy)
Radiation has always been a part of our natural environment. We are constantly exposed to radiation from the sun and outer space, and to naturally occurring radioactive materials present in the earth, in the buildings we live and work in, and in the food and water we consume. Learn more about radiation and the various sources of radiation.
Nuclear power as a source of radiation (source: Dominion Energy)
The fission process that takes place in a nuclear power station is a source of man-made radiation, although in normal operations the amount reaching the environment is so small as to be practically insignificant.
The average person receives approximately 350 millirem (see “Definitions”, below) of radiation per year from natural and man-made sources. In comparison, a person living within 10 miles of a nuclear generating station receives less than one additional millirem of radiation each year from the station.
Nuclear power stations are designed and built to prevent radioactivity from reaching the environment, both during normal operation and in the event of an accident. These intensive efforts by the industry have worked well in the more than 30 years of nuclear power production in this country, without a single radiation-related death or serious injury involving a member of the public having ever been recorded. The likelihood of such an occurrence in the future is extremely small.
The effect radiation from any source has on us depends upon the type and force of the rays and particles and the amount of exposure to our bodies. Therefore, the protective actions described here are important to remember in the event of an emergency.
Radiation Protection (source: Dominion Energy)
Although you cannot see or smell radiation, it can be detected, accurately and easily, with the aid of instruments designed for that purpose. Trained technicians using these instruments monitor radiation in and around our nuclear power stations at all times.
Should a nuclear incident occur, this monitoring will be increased to obtain accurate information for all areas that might be affected. State health officials will evaluate this information and advise what actions should be taken.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has defined four emergency classification levels (ECLs) for commercial nuclear power plant emergencies. These ECLs denote the severity of the emergency, listed below from the lowest severity (Notification of Unusual Event) to the highest (General Emergency):
1. Notification of Unusual Event: A minor problem has taken place. No release of radioactive material is expected. Federal, state, and local officials will monitor the situation. This level of emergency poses no risk to the public.
2. Alert: A minor problem has occurred. Small amounts of radioactive material could be released inside the power station. However, this level of emergency poses no risk to the public. Federal, state, and local officials will monitor the situation and may begin preparing in case the situation worsens. If you are notified of an Alert-level incident and live or work within 10-miles of the affected nuclear power plant, monitor your local Emergency Alert System (EAS) radio or television stations to receive further information about the situation as it is made available. Refer to your annual Dominion Energy calendar to learn more about emergency procedures specific to your area.
3. Site Area Emergency: A more serious problem has occurred. Small amounts of radioactive material could be released into the area right around the station. State and local officials will begin preparing to protect the public and may direct certain precautionary measures such as relocating children to nearby schools further away from the power station. If the emergency poses a risk to the public, emergency officials will send a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) message to all cellular phones within ten miles of the power station. Monitor your local Emergency Alert System (EAS) radio or television stations to receive information about the situation as it is made available, and refer to your annual Dominion Energy calendar to learn more about emergency procedures specific to your area.
4. General Emergency: This is the most serious kind of problem. Hazardous levels of radioactive material could be released into the community. This level of emergency can pose a health risk to the public in the areas surrounding the power station, and state and local officials will take actions to protect the public. These protective actions may include an order to evacuate the area or shelter-in-place. If you are within ten miles of a nuclear power station, state officials will alert you via Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) message on your cellular phone, and call all publicly listed phones using the Virginia Public Notification System (VPNS). Turn to your local EAS radio or television stations to learn what actions you must take to protect yourself and your family. Refer to your annual Dominion Energy calendar for your local EAS radio and television stations and to learn more about emergency procedures specific to your area.
Background radiation is the radioactivity that occurs naturally in our environment. The level of background radiation in the mid-Atlantic region is about 100 millirem per year.
Contamination (Radiological) occurs when radioactive material is deposited on or in an object or a person. Radioactive materials released into the environment can cause air, water, surfaces, soil, plants, buildings, people, or animals to become contaminated. Contamination may come in the form of dust, powder, or liquid. A contaminated person has radioactive materials on or inside their body (see internal contamination). Contamination continuously exposes the contaminated person, and potentially those around them, to radiation until they are decontaminated. Additionally, people who are externally contaminated with radioactive material can contaminate other people or surfaces that they touch.
Decontamination is the removal of contamination from a person, object, or place. It is important to remove radioactive material from your body as soon as possible to lower your risk of harm and reduce the chance of spreading contamination to others. Your local Evacuation Assembly Center (EAC) will monitor you for contamination and decontaminate you if necessary. If you believe you may have been contaminated and are unable to go immediately to an EAC, you can self-decontaminate (see self-decontamination).
Dose (Radiation) is the measure of how much ionizing radiation a person has been exposed to.
Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) is an area around a commercial nuclear facility used to assist in offsite emergency planning and the development of a significant response base. For commercial nuclear power plants, there are two EPZs:
- Plume exposure pathway EPZ is a geographic area of approximately 10 miles surrounding a commercial nuclear power plant within which the health and safety of the general public could be adversely affected by direct whole body external exposure to gamma radiation from the plume and from deposited materials, as well as inhalation exposure from the passing radioactive plume during a radiological incident.
- Ingestion exposure pathway EPZ (also referred to as the Ingestion Planning Zone or IPZ) is a geographic area of approximately 50 miles surrounding a commercial nuclear power plant within which the health and safety of the general public could be adversely affected through the ingestion of water or food that has been contaminated through exposure to radiation, primarily from the deposition of radioisotopes after a radiological incident.
Evacuation is a type of protective action that may be directed by emergency officials to protect people from exposure to hazardous conditions, including a release of radioactive material. If you are in an area that has been ordered to evacuate due to a nuclear power plant emergency, go to your nearest Evacuation Assembly Center (EAC). Prepare to be away from home for at least three days, bring your emergency kit if you have one, know your evacuation route and to your EAC before you leave, secure your home the best you can, and leave. Refer to your annual Dominion Energy calendar to learn more about evacuation guidance and other emergency procedures specific to your area.
Evacuation Assembly Center (EAC) is the place to go if you have been ordered to evacuate due to a nuclear power station emergency. At the EAC you will be monitored for radioactive contamination, decontaminated (if necessary), provided Potassium Iodide (KI) if needed, and registered for additional assistance. Pets and service animals are allowed at EACs and will also be monitored for contamination and decontaminated as necessary. Refer to your annual Dominion Energy calendar to learn which EAC you should go to and more about emergency procedures specific to your area.
Exposure (to radiation): Radioactive materials give off a form of energy that travels in waves or particles. This energy is called radiation. When a person is exposed to radiation, the energy penetrates the body. For example, when a person has an x-ray, he or she is exposed to radiation. Exposure is not the same as contamination. A person exposed to radiation is not necessarily contaminated with radioactive material. However, a person who is contaminated or in a contaminated area is being exposed to radiation from the contamination.
Ingestion is the act of swallowing. In the case of radionuclides or chemicals, swallowing radionuclides or chemicals by eating or drinking. This can occur unintentionally by eating or drinking contaminated foods, or from eating or drinking uncontaminated foods in a contaminated environment.
Internal contamination occurs when people swallow or breathe in radioactive materials, or when radioactive materials enter the body through an open wound or are absorbed through the skin. In certain situations, radioactive materials can be removed from inside your body through the use of special medical treatments under the supervision of medical providers. You can reduce your risk of internal contamination by not eating or drinking during an evacuation.
Ionizing Radiation is a form of high-energy radiation that acts by removing electrons from atoms and molecules of materials it passes through, including living tissue. Ionizing radiation can pass through these materials unseen and can alter molecules within the cells of our body. That action may cause eventual harm (such as cancer). Intense exposures to ionizing radiation may produce skin or tissue damage. The three main types of ionizing radiation that may be present during a radiological emergency are alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays.
- Alpha radiation is the least penetrating type. It consists of particles that can be stopped by the equivalent of a sheet of paper.
- Beta radiation is emitted from the nucleus of an atom during fission. It is a particle that can be stopped by the equivalent of thin cardboard.
- Gamma radiation is electro-magnetic waves emitted from the nucleus of an atom and is essentially the same as X-rays. It can be stopped by heavy shielding such as concrete or lead.
Millirem is a unit used to measure radiation dosage. It is 1/1000 of a rem, (Roentgen Equivalent Man) which measures the health effect of low levels of ionizing radiation on the human body.
Non-ionizing radiation is radiation that has lower energy levels and longer wavelengths than ionizing radiation. It is not strong enough to affect the structure of atoms it contacts but is strong enough to heat tissue and can cause harmful biological effects. Examples include radio waves, microwaves, visible light, and infrared from a heat lamp.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission is the federal agency responsible for the regulation and inspection of nuclear power stations to assure safety.
Pet, for emergency purposes, is a domesticated animal, such as a dog, bird, rabbit, rodent, or turtle that is traditionally kept in the home for pleasure rather than for commercial purposes, can travel in commercial carriers and be housed in temporary facilities. Household pets do not include reptiles (except turtles), amphibians, fish, insects/arachnids, farm animals (including horses), and animals kept for racing purposes. Pets are permitted at Evacuation Assembly Centers.
Potassium Iodide (KI) is a type of iodine that can be ingested to help block one type of radioactive material, radioactive iodine, from being absorbed by the thyroid. Radioactive iodine may be released during a nuclear power station emergency. In the event of a nuclear power plant emergency, KI will be available at Evacuation Assembly Centers in case it is needed. Do not ingest KI unless you are instructed by emergency response officials or a healthcare provider and take only as directed. KI can potentially cause harmful health effects, is helpful only in specific situations for certain groups of people.
Protective Action Zone (PAZ) is a smaller subdivision within the approximately 10-mile emergency planning zone surrounding a nuclear power station. When state officials notify the public to take protective actions (such as evacuation or shelter-in-place), the areas impacted by those protective actions will be announced in PAZs. Refer to your annual Dominion Energy calendar to learn which PAZ you are in and more about emergency procedures specific to your area.
Radiation is defined as energy given off in the form of waves or particles. The term “radiation” is broad and includes ordinary sunlight and radio waves, but more often it is used to mean “ionizing” radiation which can have harmful health effects (see Ionizing Radiation). Radiation is not detectable by one’s senses. It cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt. Specialized detection equipment is required to detect the presence of radiation.
Radiological Emergency Preparedness (REP) is the effort by federal, state, local, and tribal governments to ensure that adequate capabilities exist to prevent, protect against, mitigate the effects of, respond to, and recover from incidents involving commercial nuclear power plants. This is a comprehensive program that includes frequent training and exercise of state and local agencies, emergency managers, emergency responders, hospital & ambulance personnel, and schools.
Self-Decontamination is removing external contamination from your body by removing your clothing, containing them in a bag kept away from people, and taking a shower with warm water and lots of soap. Simply removing contaminated clothing and washing any uncovered skin and hair often removes the majority of radioactive contamination. If you do not have water, wipe off the exposed skin to reduce the amount of contamination on the skin until you can wash, and contain the wipes in a bag away from people. Even after self-decontamination, go to your local EAC as soon as you are able to be monitored for contamination you may have missed and any internal contamination (see internal contamination).
Service Animal, for emergency purposes, is any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items. Service animals are permitted at Evacuation Assembly Centers.
Shelter-in-Place is a type of protective action that may be recommended or ordered by emergency officials to protect people from exposure to hazardous conditions, including a release of radioactive material. If you are in an area that has been ordered to shelter-in-place, go inside, get your family and pets inside, stay inside, shut all doors and windows, turn off all heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment and vent or exhaust fans, go to the innermost room on the lowest floor, and stay tuned to your local EAS radio or television channel.
U.S. nuclear power stations, including Dominion Energy’s stations, are built to specific seismic standards for their regions. Safety systems designed to those standards would direct operators to shut down the reactors in the event of a major earthquake such as the one that struck Japan in the spring of 2011. Additional information is available from the Nuclear Energy Institute.
For more information on nuclear power, nuclear safety, or North Anna and Surry Power Stations, please contact Dominion Energy by phone at 800-814-8262.
For more information about radiation and ways to protect yourself in the event of a radiological emergency, visit: Radiation and Your Health.
For additional local information, please contact the local Emergency Management Coordinator/Official for your jurisdiction.
Additional Preparedness Resources
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – Radiological Emergency Preparedness
- U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – How Can I Prepare for a Radiological Emergency?
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Radiation Emergencies
- Virginia Department of Health, Office of Radiological Health – Emergency Preparedness
- Virginia Department of Health, Office of Radiological Health – Emergency Response
(Last updated: April 2023)