New AWE Emergency Plan highlights chilling consequences of a nuclear accident

A newly published emergency plan for the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) gives a chilling insight into the grim consequences of a major accident at one of Berkshire's nuclear weapons factories.

The 'Atomic Weapons Establishment's Off-Site Contingency Arrangements' plan, published recently by West Berkshire Council, outlines the arrangements that emergency services  would follow when responding to a release of radioactivity from either of the two AWE sites at Aldermaston or Burghfield.  

The plan shows that a radiation release from and AWE site would have a massive local impact, and would result in a regional, if not national, mobilisation of resources in response.  Although emergency responders would undoubtedly do their best to cope, the challenging circumstances and complexity of the situation mean that the response would be chaotic and prolonged.

The plan indicates that, during a nuclear emergency at AWE:

  • The population in an area downwind of the incident would be told to stay indoors for protection from radiation – possibly for an extended period.  The curfew would be likely to be an uncomfortable period for those located in schools, offices and buildings not purpose built for overnight accommodation.
  • Areas at risk from radioactive contamination would be cordoned off.  Anyone returning home to their family inside the cordon would be refused entry and directed to stay stay local 'rest centre' set up by the local council.
  • Despite instructions to stay inside, “spontaneous self-evacuation” from local communities would be a risk, and planned evacuation of some areas may be necessary for “quite some time to facilitate clean up”.
  • Road and railway line closures and possible flight restrictions would be likely to cause transport chaos in the region. 
  • Mobile phone networks would give preferential access to emergency responders and other users may not be able to gain access if large volumes of calls swamped the network.
  • Drinking water may need to be tankered in to the area if local resources were at risk from contamination by radioactive material. 
  • Restrictions on the movement and consumption of locally produced food would cover a wide area.
  • Release of information about the emergency would be tightly controlled and the media would be provided with pre-prepared press releases to ensure that “constant messages” were broadcast about the accident.

The plan gives no information about the composition and magnitude of the anticipated radionuclide releases from an accident at an AWE site, or the radiation doses which emergency responders and members of the public might receive, and it is therefore not possible to comment on the adequacy of the contingency arrangements prepared by West Berkshire.

Nuclear Information Service (NIS) has written to West Berkshire Council to give feedback on the plan, and has asked AWE to provide more information about anticipated releases of radioactivity following an emergency at AWE.  NIS is also requesting that a multi-agency emergency exercise scheduled for next year to test the plan gives responders the chance to practice handling a realistic scenario.

NIS has prepared a special briefing summarising the contents of the 245 page emergency plan which can be downloaded from the NIS website.

NIS Director Peter Burt said: “Both AWE sites handle explosives, radioactive materials, and hazardous chemicals, and the new emergency plan shows just how serious the consequences of an accident at one of these sites would be.

“In the event of a major accident at AWE there is no doubt that firefighters and emergency responders would do their bravest and their best, but their task would be like trying to stop a tank with a water pistol.

“The chances of an accident at an AWE site are, of course, small, but the consequences of any such accident would be massive, so the overall risk is significant enough to be a concern.

“AWE provides income and employment to significant numbers of people in West Berkshire and North Hampshire, but it is clear that these benefits must be qualified when compared to the risks it poses to the wider population and economy.”

Download the NIS briefing on the AWE Off-Site Contingency Arrangements here: