Nuclear Accident Exercise a Shambles –
Failures in Southampton Z Berth Nuclear Accident Exercise, 22.02.06.
Southampton City Council was presented with a list of 60 failures of the February local nuclear exercise for a reactor accident aboard a submarine, at its Scrutiny Meeting on 21st June. Despite the fact that this exercise of the Sotonsafe Plan exposed a shocking lack of preparedness, the NII (Nuclear Installations Inspectorate) has passed the plan as 'fit for purpose'.
Communications between the emergency services, the Council and the MoD failed; the Fire Service were not told what level of radiation they were to be exposed to; the Police could not evacuate the city centre; the list of distribution areas for Potassium Iodate Tablets were incomplete and the Navy didn't know which way round the submarine was supposed to be.
No mention was made in the report of how the council would cope with the added risk of an accident aboard a foreign boat carrying nuclear weapons.
Given the seriousness of the MoD and other Agency failures in this exercise, it is impossible to see how the NII considered the plan was ‘fit for purpose’. The Sotonsafe Plan must be re-tested after all the problems have been addressed before any risk can be taken by allowing a submarine into Southampton Docks. The Exercise report shows that if this plan were to be relied upon, chaos would ensue, since the Emergency Services could not properly communicate with each other, the radiation levels were not known and people did not know what they were supposed to do. Lives could be lost and exposure to radiation suffered needlessly through lack of public protection from radiation exposure. That so many problems occurred during this exercise is disturbing. But bearing in mind that this was mainly just a "table top" exercise, very few of the actions that would need to be taken in a real emergency were actually tested. The very small amount of on-the-ground action that was partly tested and a very cut-down version of PITs distribution, has turned up a huge number of problems.
While we appreciate the importance of testing the "control room" aspects of Sotonsafe, and its smooth operation would be vital in the event of a real emergency, it is out in the community where success or failure would be determined. The mechanics of evacuation and/or sheltering; the control of road, rail, maritime and air traffic; the hospitalisation and treatment of contamination victims, with resulting disruption to normal hospital activities; the panic that could ensue as parents try to collect children from schools; the traffic chaos as the public attempt to self-evacuate; etc: none of these foreseeable consequences of a real nuclear incident have been tested on-the-ground. Co-ordination between different agencies rehearsed in the control room is no substitute for the physical activities (above) that people at and around the incident would need to put into effect. It will be these brave people who would determine if Sotonsafe offers any protection to the civilian population – but unfortunately we have no idea whatsoever how events would unfold as hardly any of these required actions have been tested by this exercise.
All this exercise has shown is that there is considerable work to be done in ironing out the problems in the control room and that on-the-ground problems still remain to be tested.