Tamaqua and Marian high schools will serve as the main shelter locations for up to 2,000 Berwick residents in the event of a nuclear disaster at the Susquehanna-Berwick nuclear power plant.

The Schuylkill Haven High School would serve as the disaster reception area and shelter.

Schuylkill Haven High School and Pottsville Middle School meanwhile would serve as the two shelters for up to 6,000 residents in case a nuclear disaster would occur at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg.

About 40 officials, as well as volunteers, with state, county and local emergency management services, held a nuclear power plant disaster simulation drill Wednesday evening at the Blue Mountain High School to test their response and preparedness in the event of a nuclear disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

The growing nuclear disaster in Japan is generating questions about the possible risks nuclear power presents to residents living in Eastern Pennsylvania. With more than 9,300 megawatts, Pennsylvania has the second highest nuclear capacity in the U.S., representing approximately 21 percent of the state's total electric generating capacity.

Nuclear generation also accounts for about a third of the state's total generation. Like many states with a large nuclear power industry, Pennsylvania is a net exporter of electricity, exporting 37 percent more electric energy than it uses. Four of the five total nuclear plants operating in Pennsylvania are in the eastern part of the state, three of which are located in the southeast within 80 miles of each other.

Nuclear power plants use the heat generated from nuclear fission in a contained environment to convert water to steam, which powers generators to produce electricity. Nuclear power plants operate in most states in the country and produce about 20 percent of the nation's power. Nearly three million Americans live within 10 miles of an operating nuclear power plant.

Officials state that in the event of a nuclear disaster, a 10-mile radius around the power plant would be required to evacuate to predetermined mass care shelters located a safe distance from the power plant.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), county emergency management agencies, Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency, PPL officials, disaster evaluation contractors, American Red Cross chapters and many other local emergency services routinely hold emergency preparedness exercises at various mock shelters and at each of the three nuclear plants in our area, to include the Exelon Generation Three Mile Island nuclear power plant located near Harrisburg, PPL Susquehanna Steam Electric Nuclear Station in Berwick, and the Exelon Generation Limerick Nuclear Generating Station in Montgomery County.

The simulation exercises are held to test the ability of federal, state, county and local emergency services to respond to an emergency at a nuclear facility, as well as protect public health and safety.

Three Mile Island is the nuclear power plant most widely known nuclear power plant in the United States, due to equipment malfunctions and human error that led to the loss of coolant which damaged the number 2 reactor core in March of 1979. The reactor was permanently shut down. The accident resulted in further enhancements in training, safety procedures, emergency response, and oversight.

In case of a nuclear power plant disaster, the state department of health would pass out potassium iodide tablets in the event of radiation exposure. Officials pointed out the last serious incident involving the PPL plant in Berwick was in 2008, when oxygen levels in the plant dropped to an unsafe point. Despite a nitrogen leak, residents living near the plant were not required to evacuate.

Although the construction and operation of these plants are tightly monitored and regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), accidents can occur. An accident might result in unsafe levels of radiation that could affect the health and safety of the public living close to the plant. Local and state governments, federal agencies, and the electric utilities have emergency response plans in the event of a nuclear power plant incident.

The plans define two "emergency planning zones." One zone covers an area within a 10-mile radius of the plant, where it is possible that people could be harmed by direct radiation exposure.

The second zone covers a wider area, usually up to a 50-mile radius from the plant, where radioactive materials could contaminate water supplies, food crops, and livestock.

The highest danger from an accident at a nuclear power plant is primarily exposure to radiation. This exposure could come from the release of radioactive material from the plant into the environment, usually characterized by a plume (cloudlike formation) of radioactive gases and particles. The major hazards to people in the vicinity of the plume are radiation exposure to the body from the cloud and particles deposited on the ground, inhalation of radioactive materials, and ingestion of radioactive materials.

Radioactive materials are made of atoms that are unstable. An unstable atom expels its excess energy until it becomes stable. Radiation is what is emitted. Everyone is exposed to radiation daily from natural sources, like the sun and the Earth. Small amounts of radiation are also present in food and water. Radiation is also released from man-made sources, such as X-rays, televisions and microwaves.

Radiation has a cumulative effect. The longer a person is exposed to it, the greater the effect. A high exposure to radiation usually results in serious illness or death. FEMA encourages people to visit its website at www.FEMA.gov/areyouready to learn what they can do in preparation for and during a disaster.

Participating in Wednesday's drill were officials from PEMA, Schuylkill County Emergency Management Agency (SCEMA), Schuylkill and Eastern Northumberland Chapter of the American Red Cross, disaster evaluation contractors from ICF, local fire companies and Amateur Radio Disaster Services (ARES).

PEMA and SCEMA officials also pointed out that a large majority of responders to a disaster are volunteers and stressed their appreciation for all the volunteers who took part in the disaster simulation drill.