Prof. Andy Blowers, Chair of the Blackwater Against New Nuclear Group (BANNG) asks, ‘What would be the impact in the highly unlikely but not entirely impossible event of a major nuclear accident at a nuclear power station on the East Coast, at Sizewell or at Bradwell?’
The catastrophe at Chernobyl, thirty-three years ago, has grimly grasped the public imagination across the world ever since. In the past few weeks a Sky TV documentary drama, Chernobyl, has provided morbid fascination with the dramatic events in the early hours of that fateful morning of April 26, 1986 in northern Ukraine. The experimental shut down of Chernobyl reactor No.4 got out of control leading to a massive explosion and meltdown. In the immediate aftermath incredibly heroic efforts by the ‘liquidators’ (firefighters, helicopter crews and operators at the plant) failed to control the fire or prevent the release of massive radioactivity into the atmosphere creating an ever expanding cloud spreading its lethal contents on places hundreds of miles away, as far away as the Lake District.
The unexpected and unprecedented event took a while to sink in, exacerbated by Soviet reluctance to admit the possibility of technological failure on such a scale. It took fully 32 hours before it was decided to evacuate the population and even then there was little sense of urgency or necessity. The 22,000 residents of Pripyat, the atomic city close to the plant, were informed that ‘adverse radiation conditions are developing……remain calm, be organised and maintain order during this temporary evacuation.’ In the following hours fleets of buses were mobilised to take the ill-prepared population, carrying just a few belongings and essential documents, away to temporary accommodation, never to return. To this day the Exclusion Zone of 30km. around the plant is devoid of people and has become something of an ecological Eden for the plants and animals not subject to radiological contamination like humans.
What if the accident happened here, at Bradwell or Sizewell? Obviously it couldn’t or, at least, not a similar accident. But, nuclear accidents can, do and will happen whether through operator error (Windscale), natural causes (think of Fukushima), technical failure (Three Mile Island) or a combination of human and technical (as at Chernobyl). And major accidents occur with alarming regularity, at least once in a generation, with many more that are not revealed or publicised.
Of course, in our more open society, if a major accident occurred, there would be no attempt at cover up or delay. Authorities would be prepared with emergency plans which could be put into immediate, smooth and effective operation. Perhaps…….
In any case a Chernobyl scale accident is extremely unlikely to happen and its consequences for Essex, Suffolk and beyond are almost impossible to envisage. A 30km. Exclusion Zone around Bradwell would mean evacuating the entire population of around half a million people, leaving Colchester, Chelmsford, Southend, Maldon, Clacton as ghost towns overnight and all the places in between deserted. If it occurred at Sizewell much of East Suffolk extending up to the borders of Ipswich and Lowestoft, and including Aldeburgh, Southwold and Framlingham, with a population of around 200,000 could be in an Exclusion Zone. It is inconceivable that such vast numbers would make an orderly departure, stay calm and carry on. Some, possibly, but many would refuse to budge, more would panic and flee, clogging up roads, making movement of essential and emergency services impossible. For the fragile, the elderly, little children, those at work or at school, in hospital or prison, separated from families the situation would be intolerable, not knowing where to turn or how to act.
And, where would the people go beyond the zone? It would become a matter of survival of the fittest. Emergency planning might seem reassuring in principle and undoubtedly would help in dealing with minor incidents, perhaps even those requiring small-scale evacuation. But for mega disasters it is likely that organisational breakdown and uncontrollable mass panic or fatalistic inertia are the almost inevitable responses.
What is to be done? There are two approaches to dealing with a major nuclear accident – ignore it or avoid it. The first is to believe it will never happen or that the chances are so remote that it is not worth worrying. The risk may be so small and the consequences so huge that it doesn’t bear thinking about. If you cannot do anything about it, then it makes sense to ignore it.
On the other hand, the threat, however small, persists and the only way to remove it is not to let it happen. The only certain way to prevent a nuclear accident is to remove the threat altogether. This is, perhaps, the biggest reason why new nuclear power stations with highly radioactive spent fuel stores on fragile and floodable sites at Bradwell and Sizewell should be avoided.
Professor Blowers’ latest book is The Legacy of Nuclear Power, published by Routledge (2017). In Autumn, 2018, he was presented with the Alexander and Ilse Melamid Medal by the American Geographical Society for his ‘outstanding work on the dynamic relationship between human culture and natural resources.’