Waking up to a nuclear nightmare...
This week the British government launched a booklet advising the public on what to do in a nuclear disaster, and the report of the 9/11 commission showed al-Qa'ida had considered targeting power plants. So how prepared are we for an attack on Sellafield? Kim Bielenberg reports
It is the nightmare scenario. The Sellafield nuclear power plant in England is struck by suicide bombers in a terrorist attack and a deadly radioactive plume heads across the sea to Ireland.
The recent report of the 9/11 commission in America showed that attacks on nuclear power plants have been considered by al-Qa'ida. Before finally deciding to fly jets into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001, one of the terrorist leaders looked at the possibility of attacking a nuclear facility near New York.
Although our Government is aware of the dangers of a disaster at Sellafield and has put contingency plans in place since the September 11 attacks, we are still ill-prepared for the consequences.
The underground nuclear bunker at Custume Barracks in Athlone, which was supposed to be used by ministers and other senior officials in the event of a nuclear strike, is now so old-fashioned that it is redundant.
A recent visitor from the Offaly Independent described how the control centre has a line of out-dated 1950s-style telephones. These would not look out of place in the Hitchcock film Dial M for Murder. The control centre had a hotline to British government in Whitehall.
There are kitchen and bedroom facilities for our political VIPs, a map room pointing out important areas for protection and bathroom facilities.
A recently published government memo from the 1960s outlined the government survival plans for a nuclear war. It was envisaged ministers, civil servants and military advisers would have cooking facilities sufficient for a period of up to 30 days.
The survival plan even includes instructions about the flushing of loos: "In order to conserve water, the flushing of the WCs will not be permitted in wartime. Chemical closets should therefore be provided."
So where will senior officials meet now that the Athlone centre has been mothballed? According to the Department of Defence, co-ordination of National Emergency Planning will in future be carried out from Government Buildings.
If there was a nuclear disaster, the Radiological Protection Institute in Ireland, based in the Clonskeagh area of Dublin, would play a major role in co-ordinating a response to the emergency. But a spokesman admits the Institute does not even have an underground shelter.
Many ordinary households in America are, in fact, better equipped for a nuclear calamity than the Irish Government. During the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s, it is estimated that over 100,000 nuclear fall-out shelters were built in the US.
There are countless websites devoted to protecting your family in the event of a nuclear incident. At nukalert.com, you can even buy your own key-ring-attachable radiation monitor and alarm.
"Overall, our planning for a major emergency such as this is atrocious," says Edward Horgan, a former Irish army commandant who is an authority on emergency planning. "Basically, it is a joke. We do not even have a proper emergency bunker where officials could co-ordinate a response to a nuclear accident."
This week the British government launched a 22-page booklet, Preparing for Emergencies, which is to be distributed to all homes in the UK. Backed by a television ad campaign, it advises the public on basic first aid, how to be ready for a disaster and how to act if they are caught in an emergency, such as a chemical, biological or radiological 'dirty bomb' attack.
Back in the 1960s the British government breezily advised citizens who had to go outside after a nuclear catastrophe to "put on gumboots or stout shoes, a hat or a headscarf, coat done up to the neck, and gloves".
In the new booklet one of the principal messages in the event of a major emergency is "go in, stay in, tune in" - meaning that people should go inside, stay there and listen to local radio or TV for advice.
In the event of being trapped in a conventional bomb blast, people are urged to stay close to a wall and tap on pipes so rescuers can hear them.
According to the Irish Department of Defence, there are no plans at the moment to issue a similar booklet of general advice on how to cope with emergencies such as terrorist attacks. However, the Government has already issued advice to the public on how to act if there is a nuclear incident.
The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, which would sound the first alarm bells if radioactivity from Sellafield threatened Ireland, issues the following advice for those wishing to minimise exposure in the event of an incident:
* Go indoors, close windows and doors and switch off ventilation systems. Staying indoors, especially during the passage of the radioactive plume, will significantly reduce your exposure to radioactivity.
* Advice will be issued if iodine tablets are to be taken. Not all nuclear accidents will give rise to the need for iodine tablets. Iodine tablets are of greatest importance for children.
* Follow advice on the consumption of food and drink products. Certain foods such as milk and leafy vegetables that are grown outdoors may become contaminated where radioactive fallout has occurred.
According to the Government's information booklet outlining plans for a nuclear emergency, it is not envisaged that an accident in a nuclear plant abroad would give rise to the need for evacuation of people in Ireland.
The advice from the Government is to stay put in your home until the radioactive threat passes. But Mr Horgan says if the wind from Sellafield was from an easterly direction after an accident, serious fallout could be dumped on Ireland within hours. He says the most urgent requirement would be to evacuate all towns and villages within the immediate path of the fallout. "Staying put in your home could be fatal," he argues.
Although there are unlikely to be short-term deaths as a result of radioactivity, exposure hugely increases the risk of cancer. The cancer risk is in direct proportion to the amount of exposure.
Although the Government has recently started to take the possibility of a nuclear calamity seriously, much of the emergency infrastructure is inadequate. The country's Civil Defence, which would help the Garda and fire services in the event of a disaster, has a Dad's Army feel to it, with ancient equipment and inconsistent standards of training.
"The Civil Defence has plenty of good, dedicated people in it but it is poorly organised," says Mr Horgan. "It should be an important part of emergency planning but it is really a joke."
Anybody who believes that we treat the prospect of a nuclear incident as an entirely serious matter should look at some of the Civil Defence websites.
The central Civil Defence body does not have a website in operation. Visitors to its web address are informed that it is "under construction".
The more informative Laois Civil Defence website even has its own 'humour' section. Visitors are regaled with a time-honoured joke parodying 'Department of Defence' instructions about what you should do in the event of a nuclear strike:
"On hearing the first warning:
1. Proceed to the nearest building.
2. Stay away from loose objects and drop all glasses, books etc in your hands.
3. Remove sharp objects, such as pencils and keys from your pockets.
4. Loosen your necktie, unbutton your coat and remove restrictive articles of clothing.
5. Remove eyeglasses, earrings, watches and other jewellery.
6. Upon seeing the brilliant flash of a nuclear explosion, bend over and place your head firmly between your legs.
7. Then kiss your ass goodbye."
Nuclear disaster may be a chilling prospect - but at least we can laugh about it.