NEW HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Sirens blasted around the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant Wednesday in the annual full-volume test of the 83 sirens in the 10-mile radius around the plant.
No evacuations have been necessary since the facility began operations three decades ago, but much has changed in the last 30 years as the population has boomed around the nuclear reactor.
A recent test siren alerted Lewis Jackson to the fact that his new house is just a few miles from the plant.
“I first wanted to check the weather to see if there was a tornado in the area or if there was something like that but then I understood what it was,” he said. “It wouldn’t change my mindset on moving to the Holly Springs area.”
He and his family moved to a brand new development off Avent Ferry Road just weeks ago.
More than 100 homes will soon makeup his neighborhood, joining hundreds of others in nearby developments.
“I can see how that might be of concern if there was an issue with the power plant,” he said.
At last count in 2016, 131,520 people lived in the 10-mile radius around the plant.
That’s up from nearly 102,961 in 2010 – a 27 percent increase in six years – in an area that includes areas of Chatham, Harnett, Lee and Wake counties.
CBS North Carolina reporter Justin Quesinberry spoke with Brandon Thomas, spokesperson for the Harris plant.
Quesinberry: “The population is increasing. Is that anything that concerns Duke?
Thomas: “It’s not a concern at all.”
The nuclear plant opened in 1987.
“We are extremely proud of it. Our main concern is operating the plant safely each and every day and we have done so for 30 years now,” Thomas said.
Duke Energy, along with the local counties and the state, have evacuation plans in case there’s an emergency.
“We update our plans continuously,” said Wake County Emergency Management Deputy Director Joshua Creighton.
He said officials make updates on an annual or semi-annual basis depending on the particular plan or procedure.
He said the “evacuation time estimate” is updated every six years or if there is a 10-percent change in population within the 10-mile zone.
The most recent update came last year because of a boom in the Harnett County portion of the zone.
The population jumped from 4,238 in 2010 to 4,916 in 2016.
Quesinberry: “What sort of changes were put into place?”
Creighton: “There weren’t any significant changes to the operation plan itself. It was just an update to the data, identifying what kind of criteria was being looked at as far as how long it would take to evacuate under different circumstances.”
The number of Wake County residents in the 10-mile zone rose from 84,654 in 2008 to 118,967 in 2017.
According to information CBS North Carolina obtained from the North carolina Department of Transportation, the number of cars on U.S. 1 between exit 95 and 96 jumped from 35,000 cars a day in 2003 to 54,000 cars a day in 2015.
That’s the busiest section of U.S. 1 within the 10-mile radius around the plant.
Closer to where Jackson lives off of Avent Ferry Road, the number of cars between Piney Grove Wilbon and New Hill Holleman roads rose from 4,000 a day in 2003 to 11,000 in 2015.
“I do trust the local government with the growing city as it is. I do trust they would do the right things in regard to emergency response,” Jackson said.
CBS North Carolina checked with NCDOT and confirmed it has not received any road improvement requests for the purpose of evacuations.
Quesinberry: “Would an increase in population ever drive the need for additional roads or widening of existing roads for the purpose of evacuations?”
Creighton: “For the purpose of evacuations, it’s hard to say because it depends on where people live, what infrastructure comes into existence between now and then, whenever then is.”
Creighton said it’s a matter of using roads already in place. He said nothing is in place to determine how long an evacuation should take.
Quesinberry: “Do you feel like the roads that are out there right now are sufficient for the population?”
Creighton: “For the evacuation. The roads may not be popular for the citizens in day to day activities, but as far as it relates to an evacuation of the nuclear plant, they are adequate to evacuate the people in a timely manner.”
He said an evacuation would be organized and structured.
“We have 82 traffic control points in which we station police officers or some official to direct traffic in a particular direction to get people out of the area that’s affected. Now, it’s very, very unlikely, number one, that we’d have to have an evacuation. But it’s even more unlikely that we’d have to evacuate the entire area,” Creighton said.
In fact, Thomas said those sirens don’t mean people in the 10-mile zone, like Jackson, necessarily have to evacuate – it’s an indication to go inside and turn on a radio or TV.
Jackson said, “We just witnessed all the hurricanes in Florida and Texas and Puerto Rico and how some of those people listened to the evacuations and were able to get out. So, I think as long as people understand what the routes are and they have, hopefully, an opportunity to get out, that would be of some help.”