Flawed MoD nuclear response could place emergency personnel at risk

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Significant safety problems have been exposed in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) response to an accident involving nuclear weapons after an emergency exercise in East Anglia last year.

Had the exercise been a real emergency, civilian emergency personnel would have been placed at risk from explosions and radioactive contamination as a result of misunderstandings about key safety information because a specialist MoD nuclear emergency response team “did not emphasise the hazards adequately” and gave “insufficient priority” to liaison with emergency services, according to official post-exercise reports.

The exercise, code-named Astral Bend 2010, took place at the Defence Training Establishment at the former RAF Sculthorpe airbase in May 2010.  Emergency services and a specialist MoD nuclear team rehearsed their response to a mock crash involving a US Air Force aircraft which had crashed and caught fire, damaging nuclear weapons on board and spreading radioactive contamination around the crash site.  The official reports for the exercise have been published on the Parliamentary Library website following a question asked by Labour MP Paul Flynn (available to download at the bottom of this article).

Firefighters, ambulance service staff, and police moved to a position “well inside the explosive hazard zone” because of a misunderstanding about the risks posed by the emergency.  “No emphasis was placed on  the potential explosives hazard” and firefighters “failed to fight the fire despite the explosive hazard”.  The report also warns that responders failed to follow the strict radio discipline needed to ensure that radio signals would not cause an accidental explosion by interfering with weapons components and explosives.

Emergency responders were also placed at risk from exposure to radioactive contamination because the protective cordon set up around the crash site had a radius of just 400 metres, well short of the 600 metres deemed necessary to provide protection from radiation released during an accident involving nuclear weapons.   Radiation monitoring equipment used by Fire and Rescue service was not suitable for detecting certain types of radiation encountered during the incident, leading to further confusion about the hazards posed by the incident.

The response by the MoD Nuclear Accident Response Organisation (NARO) was particularly weak and the team “struggled to manage in the exercise”.  The specialist team was delayed in reaching the incident because of a technical problem with a helicopter, prompting the exercise review to note that “the urgency of getting first responders airborne needs to take priority”.  

Once arrived, the NARO team were “too slow to get together”, there was “no urgency apparent” in making contact with the civilian emergency controllers, and there were “difficulties in establishing a credible relationship with the Fire Service”.  The assessor's report concludes that the team “did not have the information or knowledge to correct civilian emergency service misconceptions about the radiological hazards.”

The team also “initially resisted” providing radiation monitoring support to the civilian emergency services, and attempts by US forces to co-operate with NARO personnel on monitoring “made little progress”.

Although the police have responsibility for controlling a major accident of this nature, Norfolk Constabulary sent just one sergeant and two constables to join the exercise.  As a result, police officers were “overwhelmed by the scenario” which “continued to be a problem throughout the duration of exercise play.”   Despite the virtual non-participation of the agency responsible for leading the emergency response, exercise assessors from the Ministry of Defence concluded that “the exercise was an adequate vehicle for demonstrating capabilities and that the response was fit for purpose”.

The exercise was dogged with communication problems between different agencies, and MoD radios were found to be defective throughout the exercise: “a matter of concern” as the same radios would be used in a real-life emergency.  The exercise report notes that this is the second time that radios of this type have performed poorly during nuclear emergency exercises.

Nuclear Information Service Director Peter Burt said: “The Astral Bend exercise has shown that with the best will in the world, the same kind of failings that occurred during the handling of the Fukushima nuclear emergency in Japan could be repeated here.

“The Ministry of Defence must provide the emergency services with far more information about nuclear movements and the risks they pose, and place public safety before security in its emergency planning”.

Download the two post exercise reports for the emergency exercise here: