In his column in the Regional Life magazine for June Andrew Blowers asks what might happen if a major nuclear accident happened at Bradwell?
The ultimate disaster
It is now a third of a century since the world’s greatest nuclear disaster occurred at around midnight on April 26, 1986. Chernobyl is both the symbol and the reality of the ultimate calamity that is inherent in nuclear power. In his recent book, Midnight in Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham reveals the widespread impact on the surrounding area in the borderlands of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia:
The plume from unit 4 had cast a shadow not only across the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl but also upon collective farms and industrial enterprises, small towns, isolated villages, forests, and great tracts of agricultural land. Dense traces of radioactivity reached north and west across the thirty-kilometer zone, but fallout composed of twenty-one different radionuclides forged inside Reactor Number Four – including strontium 89, strontium 90, neptunium 239, cesium 134, cesium 137, and plutonium 239 – had also formed a leopard- spot pattern of intense contamination up to three hundred kilometres from the plant.
After the terror of the uncontrollable meltdown and the fatal bravery of the firefighters and liquidators who sometimes paid with their lives, residents in the atomic city were summarily evacuated, never to return and the whole area within 30km. of the plant was declared an Exclusion Zone. To this day access is severely restricted and nature has reclaimed the once inhabited area.
Could such a disaster happen here? The chances of an accident of Chernobyl-like proportions is vanishingly small, but not entirely impossible. After all there have been other major nuclear accidents, at Windscale and at Mayak (in the Urals) both in 1957; at Three Mile Island, USA, in 1979; at Chernobyl in 1986; and Fukushima in 2011. There have been many other incidents and accidents recorded occurring with alarming frequency. This has led Charles Perrow to claim in his book, Normal Accidents (1999) that major nuclear accidents can and will occur at least once in a generation.
If an accident did occur here, what then?
Before the accident, the area within 30km. of Chernobyl was a sparsely populated waterland, of rivers, marshes and woodlands. By contrast, a similar area around Bradwell comprises about a third sea with the rest densely populated including the major urban areas of Colchester, Chelmsford and Southend as well as smaller towns such as Clacton and Maldon with a population well over half a million. It strains credulity even to contemplate evacuating an area of this size. How would the population be informed, how would they react, how would they be moved and where would they go? It would constitute a far greater challenge than the wartime evacuation of London, involving the total population, not merely its children.
At Chernobyl the town of Pripyat (50,000) about three miles from the plant, was evacuated two days after the accident but the evacuation was achieved overnight by issuing orders to leave, mobilising bus and train transports and billeting the people in towns and surrounding countryside. They were told to pack only important documents and food and clothing for three days. The proclamation ended with the injunction: ‘We ask that you remain calm, be organized, and maintain order during this temporary evacuation’.
Imagine trying to achieve an orderly evacuation from the area closest to Bradwell in the event of an incident, Mersea Island for example, with a summertime population of around 15,000 nearly half temporary residents. There are, of course, emergency planning procedures involving the county council and emergency services and practice scenarios are run. But, with the best will in the world, the real situation cannot be simulated. The population must be informed and prepared and the logistics of evacuation (if necessary) and relocation fully planned.
Information will be supplied on ‘the behaviour which members of the public should adopt’. It is scarcely credible that in conditions of utmost emergency the public will behave in an orderly, disciplined and rational way: there may be panic, bewilderment and misunderstanding. The warning systems may be inadequate and not reach everyone. Instead of staying put with doors and windows closed to avoid a radiation plume, people may panic and try to flee thereby creating gridlock. In the case of Mersea with its single carriageway access to the mainland, it may feel like being in a prison open to the radioactive skies.
Emergency Planning is an exercise in reassurance; if anything goes wrong it can be dealt with. It obviously can help but it is impossible to prepare for every eventuality especially in the face of a major accident involving widespread radioactive fallout. It is little use pretending accidents cannot happen. They might and there must be openness about the risks and caution as to what can practicably be done. At Chernobyl the authorities were unprepared and it was several days before the extent of the catastrophe was recognised and longer still before it was admitted to the world.
In our more open society, complete cover up would be difficult but there could be a temptation to delay action in the belief or hope that the situation can be controlled. Of course, a mega accident is highly unlikely but cannot be ruled out. If we want nuclear energy then those living in the vicinity of power stations must bear the risks. It may not happen here, but it will happen somewhere sometime.