Panic in Portland during nuclear submarine emergency exercise

Several national newspapers have picked up a story from local newspapers in Dorset about the fiasco which resulted when local councils and the Royal Navy tried to run a nuclear emergency exercise in the Portland area.

The exercise resulted in chaos when residents failed to realise it was just a practice run, and mistook emergency test drills for the real thing.  According to news reports the panic started when  householders received notices advising them of action to take in the event of a radiation emergency.  Elderly residents were frightened and distressed by the incident and the emergency services were bombarded with phone calls from members of the public asking for more information.

The emergency exercise was necessary because Portland is the site of a berth for the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines.  Although there are first class Naval dockyards further along the coast at Devonport to the west and Portsmouth to the east, the Navy insists on retaining Portland as an 'operational berth'.  Similar berths exist at ports in Southampton and Liverpool, Spithead, and at number of sites in the Scottish islands.  As far as anyone can tell, the operational need for these sites is confined to generating public relations opportunities for the Navy and giving the submarine crew the chance for a rest and recreation visit.

The Navy;s submarines are powered by a small nuclear reactor, so this means that every time a submarine visit takes place at one of these civilian locations, a floating nuclear power station moves in next door.  Unlike nuclear power stations, which are sited in relatively rural locations in the UK, the submarine will dock in an urban area where local people are less familiar and comfortable with the risks than at a power station site.  For those who are interested, independent nuclear engineer John Large has conducted a study of the problems associated with submarine visits to civil ports.

The Portland panic demonstrates the considerable difficulties the authorities are likely to face in reassuring the public in the event of a nuclear accident.  At the time of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in 1979 the US authorities recommended that some 3,400 pregnant women and pre-school children within a 5-mile radius of the plant should leave the area, but in fact a spontaneous evacuation of about 200,000 people occurred – nearly 40 percent of the population within 15 miles of the reactor. Numerous studies of evacuation behaviour during the Three Mile Island incident suggest that the public is likely to over-respond to evacuation orders because of fears of radiation exposure.

An obvious question comes to mind: if this is an indication of the difficulties caused by a small-scale exercise at the local level, what would happen in the event of a real accident affecting a much larger area?

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