Exclusive, 18 October 2011
The government’s nuclear safety watchdog assured ministers on the day of the Fukushima nuclear accident that Britain’s nuclear plants would resist earthquakes and floods, according to a leaked Whitehall briefing.
In a memo to the employment minister, Chris Grayling, on 11 March 2011, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said it was “confident” that British reactors and the companies that operate them had “appropriate levels of protection for seismic events”.
It recommended a series of reassuring “lines to take” with the media about the “robust” safety systems that were in place to prevent nuclear disasters. In a covering note, an HSE official said it looked as if the accident in Japan was “now under control”.
The Fukushima accident, triggered by a large earthquake and tsunami on 11 March, forced 80,000 people from their homes and spread radioactivity around the world. Reactors suffered three explosions, three meltdowns and a series of fires, and the accident was eventually classified as level seven on the international scale, meaning it was a “major accident” like Chernobyl in 1986.
The leaked briefing to Grayling, HSE’s sponsoring minister, was also circulated to the secretary for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith. Written only hours after the Fukushima accident started unfolding, it was sent by senior HSE official, Les Philpott.
The briefing argued that an earthquake the magnitude of that experienced in Japan could not happen in the UK. “HSE Nuclear Directorate is confident that the UK’s fleet of nuclear power reactors and operators are prepared appropriately for seismic activity that could be anticipated in the UK,” it said.
“This preparedness, examined and inspected by the HSE Nuclear Directorate in ten-yearly safety reviews includes ensuring that protection systems, with appropriate back-up systems, remain robust.”
Nuclear plants had access to emergency power supplies if the electricity grid fails and emergency procedures are regularly reviewed, the briefing added. “Reactor design companies are required to demonstrate that the reactor designs would withstand a range of natural events, including earthquakes and flooding."
In an internal email on 11 March about the Fukushima briefing, an HSE official said: “There was an issue with one of the reactors, but there was no release of radiation, and the situation looks as if it is now under control.”
The briefing foreshadows the conclusions of the 315-page report on the Fukushima accident ordered by the energy secretary, Chris Huhne, and published by the HSE’s chief nuclear inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, last week. There were “no fundamental safety weaknesses in the UK’s nuclear industry”, the report said.
The briefing will reinforce criticisms that the HSE made up its mind about the implications of the Japanese accident long before it formally reported to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). This is a view that is shared by at least one HSE insider.
“Well before Chris Huhne ordered his implications review and even before most people were aware there was an unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan, HSE put out this defensive briefing,” he said. “So given HSE were already confident about nuclear safety here in the UK - what else could they say in their subsequent reports to DECC?”
The leaked briefing to Chris Grayling is available to download here (57KB pdf). The accompanying Health and Safety Executive email can’t be published in full because it contains personal data.