from Sunday Herald, 21 August 2005
Serious flaws in the emergency arrangements for coping with major nuclear accidents have been exposed by internal government assessments acquired by the Sunday Herald.
Inadequate radiation monitoring, communication breakdowns, poor planning and a chronic shortage of basic facilities have all been revealed by a series of emergency exercises at nuclear sites over the last few years.
If a real nuclear disaster were to occur, critics are worried that fatal mistakes would leave large communities unprotected.
“Thousands of extra people could be put at risk of radioactive contamination and increased risk of cancers as a result of inadequate emergency planning,” said David Stephenson, the Glasgow councillor who chairs the Scottish group of nuclear-free local authorities.
“Emergency plans are produced for a very small area around a nuclear site. If there have been all these problems in carrying out exercises on inadequate plans produced with very limited resources, we are going to be in real trouble should we be called upon to extend these plans.”
Regular assessments of the problems thrown up by nuclear exercises are conducted by the government’s Nuclear Emergency Planning Liaison Group.
Its latest report highlights 48 “areas for improvement”, prompted by more than 20 exercises at nuclear sites over the last five years, including Hunterston, Torness and Dounreay in Scotland.
The exercises, which are required to take place regularly by the government’s nuclear safety inspectors, involve the emergency services, nuclear operators, local authorities and regulatory agencies.
They all act out their roles in responding to imagined explosions, fires and radiation leaks.
“Some agencies struggled to provide timely, clear and concise advice on which to base strategic decisions,” the report says. “There was a failure to spot that some key agencies were missing.”
Some agencies were slow to circulate crucial technical information, some failed to share information internally and some betrayed a “lack of preparedness” in giving advice on chemical risks.
The report says planning assumptions and data were “insufficient” for organising evacuations across council boundaries. The role of government officials was “unclear and at times caused confusion”, it adds.
Efforts to keep the media informed of what was happening “floundered at times because of a lack of press officer representation from key organisations”, the report complains. “This results in difficulties in drafting and agreeing reassuring public messages.”
One exercise at Bradwell in Essex uncovered shortages of basic equipment. “Status board not kept up to date,” the report records.
“Lack of phone/network and power points. One telephone per agency inadequate. Poorly located fax machine with no paper provided. No printers.”
The report, which was completed last December, also details delays and deficiencies in radiation monitoring. Two government agencies, the National Radiological Protection Board and the Food St andards Agency, were said to be “frustrated” by the lack of radiation readings.
The problem was particularly acute at an exercise codenamed “Yeti” at Torness nuclear power station in East Lothian on October 30, 2003. “The availability of early radiological monitoring information to a standard acceptable to the public was not present,” concludes a report by British Energy, the company that runs the site.
“The scientific response of measuring risk only in those areas where it is known or believed to exist is completely inadequate.”
The revelations were described yesterday as “an astonishing catalogue of fundamental and recurring failures” by Bridget Woodman, a nuclear research fellow at the University of Warwick.
“After practising for years to cope with a nuclear accident, the agencies still can’t get even the basics right.
“If there was a serious accident, people’s lives will depend on things going like clockwork,” she said.
“How can the industry be talking about building new nuclear power stations when it’s clear that they can’t cope with the potential consequences of operating the ones they have now?”
Last week, the Scottish Executive released hundreds of internal documents concerning nuclear emergency exercises since the early 1990s. They were provided to the Sunday Herald in response to a request under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act in May.
These documents include a number of e-mails between Scottish Executive officials last year, disclosing unease about the decision to hold a major exercise at Dounreay last September. Northern Constabulary and the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) both felt put upon because they had recently hosted other exercises, including Delta 36 in August 2003 (see panel).
“All this points to poor planning of these things,” commented one Executive official. In another e-mail, an official suggests that government departments are “not very practised” at co-ordinating emergency plans, and haven’t considered “how scenarios would evolve in real life and what the political consequences would be”.
The Executive said that the decision to hold the exercise at Dounreay in September last year had been made by the Nuclear Emergency Arrangements Forum.
Northern Constabulary had requested additional funding to cover their costs and this had been met by the UKAEA.
“Emergency exercises at nuclear facilities are a valuable tool in preparing all parties concerned for the possibility of a major incident,” said an Executive spokesman.
“They are an opportunity to flag up problems, issues of concern and the lessons that can be learned from them. Issues continually arise during exercise programmes, but that is precisely the reason why exercises need to be held on a regular basis.”
Colin Punler, the UKAEA spokesman at Dounreay, said: “Exercises would be pointless if we didn’t learn from them.”
EXTRACTS FROM OFFICIAL LOGS:
9.30am: Automatic fire alarms activated in the Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) at Dounreay.
9.34: A loud crash reported, and screens have gone haywire. All personnel are evacuating the building. Smoke coming from the south side.
9.38: Fire brigade called. Radiation suspected.
9.40: Highland Council asks whether it is safe for workmen to continue working on the nearby A836.
9.45: Reported that a party, including environment minister, Ross Finnie, and his five-months pregnant secretary were in PFR this morning.
9.45: Dounreay visitor centre asks whether it should hold or release a bus party of 47 Japanese.
9.48: A Peruvian TV crew has turned up at the front gate.
9.50: A farmer asks if it is safe to take sheep to market.
9.55: Severe pressure to locate Finnie and his party.
9.58: Finnie’s party reported to have seen the accident but to have got out. They are suffering from smoke inhalation, are badly shaken and may have been contaminated.
10.01: Reported that an overhead crane being used to transport a flask had fallen on to the top of the reactor damaging sodium pipe work. This resulted in a serious liquid metal fire. Part of the crane has punctured the reactor hall south wall, breaching containment. Radiation has been detected. Six people are reported missing.
10.05: The husband of Finnie’s secretary phones and asks if she is OK.
10.15: The police say that an aeroplane has just left Inverness with a film crew on board intending to fly over Dounreay.
10.16: The first casualty is recovered. Two firefighters also contaminated.
10.30: Police report that a foreign TV crew has left Scrabster harbour Caithness, in a boat heading for Dounreay.
10.45: A hydro company manager reports that three workers near Dounreay have seen smoke and are starting to feel unwell. “What the f*** is happening?” he says. “Is it safe to get my men off the hill?”
10.59: More firefighters are contaminated and the fire is spreading.
11.25: Fire brigade requires extra protection suits as they are being removed during decontamination of firefighters.
11.30: Journalist phones to ask if it is safe to eat strawberries from Halkirk.
14.00: Food Standards Agency Scotland issues a warning that fresh food, fish, farm crops and livestock may have become contaminated. Local people are advised not to eat food that has been left outside. Farmers are told not to harvest crops.
14.44: Fire contained, though it will take another 24 hours to extinguish; 32 firefighters have been contaminated.
Time unspecified: A minister gives an emergency statement to parliament. A plume of contamination is heading towards Halkirk and Wick, he says. People within five kilometres of Dounreay have been advised to shelter, and evacuation plans are being developed should this prove necessary. Drinking water supplies from Loch Calder suspended. There is no reason for wider public concern, he says.
Source: Scottish Executive, Exercise Delta 36 at Dounreay, August 13, 2003