Sellafield panic was just an exercise!

Monday, September 28, 2009

The authorities, it appears, prioritise telling people what measures they should be taking, without feeling the need to properly explain why.

A local woman talks of seeing smoke or steam rising from areas on the site where she has not seen such an occurrence before.

Reporters, sensing a major story breaking, begin ringing their contacts at Sellafield and in the emergency services.

It transpires a crane has collapsed close to the Magnox reprocessing plant, injuring two workers and an “off-site emergency” has been declared.

This means the incident probably involves the leaking of radioactive material with potentially harmful consequences to people living nearby.

As events unfold it becomes apparent the crane has toppled on to a pipe bridge sparking a release of vapour which will necessitate the evacuation of thousands of west Cumbrians.

The scenario is a mock-up designed to test the systems in place to deal with such an incident, but it is one that is scarily feasible.

Cumbrians have long grown used to living shoulder-to-shoulder with one of the most complex nuclear sites in the world. A catastrophic accident is not something most of us spend our days thinking about, but, as the Windscale fire of 1957 proved, it is not impossible.

Oscar 9 was the codename for Thursday’s mock incident.

The event brought together every agency that would be involved in such an accident, from the Cabinet Office to Copeland Council.

Representatives from the NHS, the police, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Health Protection Agency, the Environment Agency and Downing Street, in the guise of a top-level nuclear adviser, were also there.

An ‘evacuation centre’ was set up at Whitehaven’s St Benedict’s School, complete with evacuees, and a media base installed at Whitehaven School.

Reporters from the News & Star, our sister paper The Whitehaven News and Sky News were on hand on to play the role of a hungry press pack.

Press offices all over the country took a day off to field calls about the ‘incident’.

One of the main objectives of the exercise was to examine how effectively the authorities could get clear, accurate information out to the public without alarming them.

Top ranking executives of all the agencies involved were relieved of their duties for the day to play along. They were called to an emergency briefing where the details of the incident were relayed and an action plan drawn up.

Media briefings were then organised with representatives from the police, the Environment Agency, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Health Protection Agency and Sellafield management facing a mob of reporters.

Appeals were put out for villagers in the areas surrounding Sellafield first to “shelter”: stay indoors and close all windows and doors and then to evacuate their homes and attend reception centres.

A Health Protection Agency representative gave assurances about the threat to public health and a Government nuclear advisor described the details of the incident, explaining it would probably constitute level three or four in severity (the Windscale fire was level five).

The event was an impressive effort by the authorities and an authentic atmosphere was created.

But an interesting, if not unexpected, contradiction between the needs of the authorities and the desires of the media quickly became apparent.

The powers-that-be were interested in controlling the flow of information and making sure reporters were used to convey instructions to the public.

The media, while conscious of the need to instruct, were equally interested in the “story”. What, exactly, had happened? Who were the casualties? What was their condition? How serious a threat was this to public health? What, precisely, was the radioactive material that had escaped?

Unsurprisingly for seasoned hacks, much of this information was slow to arrive. A helpful Sellafield press officer apart, exact details of the incident were too scarce for too long.

The bare bones of the accident: The fact a crane had toppled onto a pipe bridge which then released radioactive material was not properly confirmed until about three hours in. And a not unreasonable request about whether the radioactive material had escaped beyond the Sellafield fence was not dealt with until even later.

The injured workers, for example, were only confirmed as still being alive early in the afternoon, a good four or five hours after the incident. And even then only the fact they were taken to Carlisle and Whitehaven hospitals was revealed.

Journalists, accustomed to the evasiveness of the authorities in such incidents, were not surprised by the lack of information forthcoming. Too often, media releases contained information that was already out of date and did not do enough to clarify the situation.

The village of Holmrook, for example, appeared in both the list of places told to evacuate and the list of areas instructed to “shelter”.

And an assurance by the Government’s nuclear advisor that anyone who feels they may have been contaminated should “take a shower” hardly inspired confidence either.

Reporters quickly became frustrated at the apparent unwillingness to share the exact details of the accident. And that frustration morphed into anger which was aimed at the Sellafield management.

Todd Wright, a deputy head of site at Sellafield, was given a severe grilling by reporters on the complex’s safety record and a surprising feature of his response was his refusal to give an apology.

He told reporters the priority was to contain the leak and ensure the safety of his workers, the environment and the public, then to investigate. He repeatedly declined the opportunity to say sorry to the thousands of people who would have experienced stress and severe upheaval as a result of being evacuated.

Demands for an apology may appear trivial in the anarchy of an unfolding nuclear incident. In the real world of blame and grievance, however, it is eminently believable that fear would quickly turn to anger and a need for retribution and that ire would be fired at the Sellafield top brass.

The system appears unwilling, or unable, to deal with such demands. The players in this drama may have won the information battle but they failed in the PR war.

Every reporter would have come away from Mr Wright’s address with an impression of an uncaring organisation interested only in the welfare of its workforce and the protection of its reputation. He comfortably fended off calls for his resignation but, in real life, the clamour would have built and his inability to empathise with a community uprooted and shifted to a evacuation centres would be leapt upon.

The main objective of the exercise: To quickly issue clear and accurate instructions to the public in the event of a nuclear incident was well achieved, however. And the measures in place to deal with such an occurrence appear robust.

However, the logistical elements of the scenario, the actual shifting of thousands of people to reception centres, were obviously not tested and never can be.

Despite repeated requests for them not to, one can’t help thinking that a fair proportion of the population would jump into their cars and attempt to flee the area.

A section of the main A595 road was ‘closed’ to prevent a mass exodus, and to allow the emergency services a clear run, but the vast network of side roads leading out of the county could quickly become blocked instead.

In that lies the major hurdle for the authorities: It is one thing to distribute information and instructions to the public, it is another to ensure they are followed.

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