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13 November 2014

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You are in: Suffolk > People > Help and Advice > What if..? Nuclear and fire

Sizewell Nuclear Power Station

Sizewell Nuclear Power Station

What if..? Nuclear and fire

As part of our What if..? campaign we ask if Suffolk's nuclear power station is prepared for the unexpected, whilst the county's chief fire officer explains the importance of the media in times of an emergency.

Nuclear disaster in Suffolk

The nuclear power stations at Sizewell (A is in the process of being decommissioned, B began life in 1995) have attracted critics since work began in the 1960s, with the prospect of a radiation leak or terrorist attack fuelling the argument of those against the station on the Suffolk coast.

Meanwhile Sizewell B's operators, British Energy, say the strict industry regulations and meticulous attention to safety make it safe.

Charles Barnett sits firmly in the 'against' camp and distributes approximately 700 copies of his monthly newsletter, Shut Down Sizewell.

"Terrorists determined to create havoc will surprise us everytime, as they did in America on 9/11," said Barnett. "It was unthinkable then so what may happen at Sizewell is equally unthinkable."

Greenpeace campaigner Paul Schot scales Sizewell B

Greenpeace campaigner Paul Schot

Greenpeace protesters have previously campaigned at the station, with one scaling the Sizewell B dome in 2002 to highlight lapses in security.

Armed police are now on patrol but Barnett fears it's only a matter of time before other gaps are exploited by less peaceful demonstrators.

"I can, for example, postulate somebody firing an exercet missile from a ship off the coast directly at Sizewell B and creating havoc, or it could be a truck bomb - you just don't know how it's going to happen."

Dave Drury, in his role of Technical and Safety Manager at Sizewell B, is one of those responsible for ensuring the safety of the surrounding community.

"We have a team of about 12 people who effectively run the strategic emergency response centre," said Drury.

"The most likely thing to go wrong? That's a difficult question to answer because the way we designed the plant is to cope with all major plant breakdowns, or processes that could go wrong."

Staff at Sizewell carry out safety exercises six times a year, including role plays of terrorist break ins.

Measures are also in place to protect the local population in the event of a radiation leak.

"We will have teams of people going out into the local environment and taking measurements of the radioactivity. Based on that analysis we'd provide advice to the police and local authorities about the local populations - whether we should move them or advise them to take potassium iodate tablets and shelter.

"We pre-distrubte, within the detailed planning zone - which is 2.4 kilometres, potassium iodate tablets so they have that on hand if necessary."

A BBC Inside Out investigation in 2003 found that a radiation leak at Sizewell could effect people as far away as London, with the potential life-threatening conditions including cancer, tumours and birth defects.

If taken within two hours the potassium iodate tablets protect the thyroid gland from the effects of radioactive iodine.

But Drury admits that even the majority of Sizewell's nearest town, Leiston doesn't fall within the 2.4 kilometres boundary.

Education and trust

In July 2008 a nuclear plant at Tricastin in the south of France was temporarily closed after a uranium leak polluted the local water supply.

Drury says the situation was made worse by the lack of information provided to people living in the immediate vicinity - the leak happened late on a Monday night but residents weren't informed until 10am (GMT) the morning after.

"There's an understandable anxiety stemmed out of historical events, that there's going to be widespread consequences when very often there isn't.

"The only thing we can do as an industry, and as a station particularly, is make sure we educate people with the facts and give them sufficient knowledge to make judgments that we think would be well balanced."

Barnett, however, isn't convinced and says the only way to eradicate a 'what if' situation is to remove all nuclear power plants.

"What we must do is shut down all the nuclear power plants in this country whilst there's still time. We have to go for energy conservation and energy efficiency coupled with the benign, renewable sources of energy - wind, wave, tidal, solar."

What if..? Fire

Suffolk's former Chief Fire Officer Lee Howell has been a key part in how our county responds to emergencies.

When the first case of the H5N1 strain of bird flu was discovered at Bernard Matthews turkey farm in Holton, Suffolk in February 2007, he didn't get much sleep.

"I was actually chairing a meeting at police head quarters at three o'clock in the morning," he said.

Holton warning sign

"We had to make sure all the arrangements were in place for seven o'clock when the world's media arrived at Holton and it became the national story of the day."

Howell admits the relationship with the emergency services and the media can often become strained with the arrival of a major threat or emergency, especially in the 21st Century and the advent of rolling news.

"The difficulty with having so much news is people sometimes lose a sense of perspective.

"But when the public are concerned and looking for advice they turn on the radio so it's vitally important the emergency services work closely with the news providers.

"The BBC's public service role is essential in that."

Reflecting on his time in Suffolk before taking up the helm at Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue, Howell admitted Suffolk's been tested significantly in the past few years.

But reassurances are given that co-operative working has been the key to overcoming many crises.

"The East Coast flooding risk we had, we had resources from across the country at our disposal. Some of that coordination has to take place away from the incident itself so we bring all the key people needed for emergency planning together.

"We've got some very strong partnership arrangements between the emergency services and other agencies and that's really important in times of crisis.

"While we can't control when some of these incidents might happen we can mitigate against the effects."

last updated: 14/01/2009 at 16:58
created: 12/01/2009

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