What caused the eerie message with instructions to evacuate Hampton Beach to go off because of a "problem" at the Seabrook Nuclear Plant on Tuesday morning?

New Hampshire Department of Safety Commissioner Robert L. Quinn, along with the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, are working with operator NextEra Energy Seabrook Station to figure out what set off 9 of 121 sirens.

“I have been in constant communication with the plant, who have indicated that this was a mistake and a comprehensive review will take place,” Quinn said in a statement. “As a 30 year Seabrook resident, I have full confidence in the plans and systems in place that were collaboratively developed between the state, the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant and the Seacoast communities in the event of an actual emergency.”

The message was heard within the 10 mile zone around the plant in the 10 a.m. hour.

"Attention. Attention. There is a problem at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. The beaches are closed. Please leave the beach area at once and turn on your radio for more information," the message said.

Hampton Fire Chief's Phone Blew Up

Hampton Fire Chief Michael McMahon told Seacoast Current that around 100 calls were received by the department's dispatch center, and police received a similar number right after the message was aired.

"People were unable to get a hold of us so they started calling the town office, people were ringing the doorbells at the police station," McMahon said. "I'm sure the police had walk-ins and the lifeguards and the State Park folks at the beach and the Chamber of Commerce all had walk-in traffic with people asking 'hey what's going on.'"

McMahon said he didn't hear the alert as the siren located in back of the firehouse was not one of the ones activated. But his own phone started blowing up with texts and calls, including ones from the police chief and the town manager.

McMahon said his suspicions were quickly raised as things were "out of order." Sirens going off and evacuations of whole areas or towns are not the first thing that is supposed to happen during an incident at the nuclear plant.

"I thought 'this is odd. This is clearly not real,"' McMahon said. "If this were a real incident, we would have known for hours before it got to the point of sounding the sirens at the beach for an evacuation."

Seabrook Nuclear Emergency Planning Zone
Seabrook Nuclear Emergency Planning Zone (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency)
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A Certain Order of Events During an Emergency

In the case of an emergency at the Seabrook plant, McMahon said there is a "hierarchy" of steps before an evacuation would be fully implemented. The sirens are also not the only notification method for an evacuation.

"If there were ever an incident happening that were to get to that level, there would be an awful lot of things happening around town. We have significant transportation plans, evacuation plans, reception centers for people to evacuate to if they simply don't go home," McMahon said.

McMahon said the incident was an anomaly, and he has not spoken to anyone from the state or the plant.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokeswoman Diane Screnci said the agency regulates the commercial nuclear industry by carrying out an extensive inspection and oversight program at each plant in the country. The inspections include the plant’s alert system’s testing and maintenance program.

"We expect the company to figure out what happened, why it happened, and to take action to prevent recurrence. Our inspectors will follow the company’s actions to address this issue," Screnci said.

The group C-10 Research & Education Foundation said the false alarm served as a reminder of what an actual evacuation would look like.

"For the more than 160,000 residents in Massachusetts and New Hampshire that live within the 10 mile emergency planning zone of the plant, this is a daily reality and burden that we silently bear," the group said on its Facebook page.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNH

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