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Editorial: Communication needs to be fixed

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opinion Ellsworth,Wisconsin 54011
Pierce County Herald
715-273-4335 customer support
Editorial: Communication needs to be fixed
Ellsworth Wisconsin 126 S. Chestnut St. 54011

Nuclear plant alert system, welcome to the instant messaging world.

Many things went right in terms of emergency response when the Prairie Island nuclear plant issued an alert early last month for an industrial bleach spill. Everyone showed up and did their job.


One of the things that didn't go according to plan was public communication.

That needs to be fixed and the new plan must reflect the Facebook, Twitter and text-messaging era.

Students of two nearby Wisconsin school districts were only some of the people scouring the internet and sending messages back and forth as they tried to learn what had happened. They also wanted to know if they had school.

Rumors abounded. The worst of them was the plant had suffered a radiation leak.

That a Twin Cities television station ran a ticker across the screen carrying incomplete and even false information based on hearsay compounded people's confusion.

Fortunately, nobody panicked. The emergency sirens weren't sounding, after all. People said they know the plant's safety record and believe local law enforcement--or their friends and neighbors who work at the plant--will let them know if there's a true emergency.

At 3:53 a.m., a worker discovered bleach was leaking from a 500-gallon bleach. (The bleach is important because it cleans the water used in the reactor's vital cooling system.)

At 4:01 a.m., Xcel Energy sent out an alert to emergency responders on the list.

So far, so good.

Federal officials contacted the Prairie Island Tribal Council president at 4:41 a.m. and Xcel followed up with a personal call at 5:45 a.m.

Not until 7:01 a.m., however, was a press release sent to media. That came too late.

During those three hours, tribal members and other citizens had to wonder about the conflicting reports.

"We don't know how all of this information was communicated, why the news media reported what they did," the tribal council said. "Unfortunately, living in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, our members are on pins and needles. Our biggest fear is that there will be some type of accident at the plant, and this type of event can cause people to assume the worst. We need to have clear and accurate information."

Clear, accurately and timely.