For about 10 minutes in early January, Jennifer Batchelor thought her trip to Hawaii would end with her dying in a nuclear blast.
Batchelor, 34, of Hendersonville, had traveled to Hawaii with a friend to run a 15K on Maui. The two had gotten up early the day before the race to watch the sunrise over the mountains in Haleakala National Park, and were meandering through rural oceanside hills back to their condo when an alert popped up on their phones.
“THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” it read, warning the two Tennesseans that a ballistic missile was inbound and the lush tropical islands were the target.
They panicked and called their husbands. For 10 minutes or so, they believed they were facing certain death, until others they knew in the area were able to help confirm there was no real threat, before officials gave the all clear.
The alert turned out to be a mistake, but caused panic in other parts of Hawaii, Batchelor said.
The event in Hawaii has also prompted Tennessee officials to examine the possibility of the Volunteer State being a target for a nuclear strike, and how it would respond if it were attacked.
“The Hawaii incident has been a wake-up call to states to just make sure our processes are in place,” said Rick Shipkowski, assistant commissioner for the state’s office of Homeland Security.
Shipkowski said the reality is Tennessee is “probably no more or less likely than any other potential targets in this country,” even though it’s outside the range that missiles from North Korea could strike and well below the profile of cities like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles or New York.
“There’s gotta be places that are higher on the list,” Batchelor said.
Ready.gov, the government’s go-to guide for being prepared, says likely targets for a nuclear attack are military installations, transit hubs, refineries, major power plants and capitals. Tennessee has all of those.
A massive earthquake on the New Madrid fault in West Tennessee or along the Appalachian Trail in the east could disconnect people with needed and common services for days or weeks, said TEMA spokesman Dean Flener, and people should prepare for even longer than just a few days.
The eastern part of the state is also home to the Y-12 National Security Complex, an atomic weapons plant that fabricates and maintains uranium components for the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
The Manhattan Project-era atomic plant is at the center of a lawsuit filed against the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration alleging the government agencies ignored new information about seismic risks during an environmental review of its soon to be constructed Uranium Processing Facility.
The plaintiff organizations — The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, Nuclear Watch New Mexico and the Natural Resources Defense Council — have asserted revised plans for the Uranium Processing Facility are significantly different from those the NNSA analyzed in 2011 for a previous design.
NNSA adopted a new design for the facility after its costs — originally projected at $650 million — spun out of control, prompting Congress to launch a review and cap the project’s budget at $6.5 billion.
To save costs, Y-12 will continue to use two legacy facilities, Building 9215 and Beta-2E, rather than combine all their material processing activities into the new building.
In 2015, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said the two buildings, which are both are more than 60 years old, do not meet structural design requirements to withstand an earthquake, increasing the risk that they could release dangerous contaminants under seismic stress.
Nuclear safety regulators and watchdogs place a high priority on earthquake safety at nuclear sites, and for good reason. A March 2011 earthquake triggered Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, which displaced more than 156,000 people and cost at least $17.5 billion.
The United States 9/11 Commission has also said terrorists may target nuclear power plants in an attempt to release contamination into the surrounding area. The Tennessee Valley Authority operates two nuclear power plants in the state, and one in neighboring Athens, Alabama.
Both Y-12 National Security Complex and the Tennessee Valley Authority participate in regular emergency management exercises.
Shipkowski, a retired Army Special Forces chemical corps officer, has spent decades dealing with biological, chemical or nuclear threats, but most Americans haven’t thought about a nuclear attack on an individual level since in decades, he said.
“I don’t think there’s been a ‘duck and cover’ in many decades,” said Dean Flener, spokesman for TEMA, which organizes and controls emergency alerts around the state.
Batchelor said even after her experience in Hawaii, she’s still skeptical about an attack in Tennessee, but has started the discussion about preparedness at home.
“It’s a family plan and you need to know what the plan is,” she said.