Dealing with crisis: 1988 planning in case a Russian satellite landed on NI #20YearRule

Sometime it’s a relief to know that other people are worrying about things that you didn’t even know you could have been worrying about. What happens if there’s another Chernobyl? What happens if there’s a strike at the power station?

As you turn the pages of the NI Emergency Committee file marked CENT/1/19/44A [selective scans] which has now been released under the 30/20 Year Rule and can be read in the Public Records Office, the topics casually lurch from nuclear fallout monitoring to the correct way to sit in front of computer monitors, as well as warnings about adverse weather and a university running low on paper.

In September 1988, the then UK Home Secretary Douglas Hurd circulated a memo to Cabinet colleagues to outline how the UK should handle the 1 in 2,000 chance that radioactive debris from a falling Russian Cosmos 1900 satellite (perhaps more proper to refer to it as ‘Kosmos 1900’) would affect the UK.

Nuclear-powered satellites like the Cosmos 1900 had an in-built system that could push the nuclear core into a high orbit so that the remainder of the satellite could more safely fall to earth while the nuclear material orbited the earth for several hundred more years.

“There would only be a risk to the UK if the safety devices fail and if the UK happens to be lie under the track of the final orbit.”

The failure of that core ejection system on the older Cosmos 954 had resulted in radioactive debris being scattered over a 40,000 square mile area of northern Canada a decade before. Unable to predict the precise point of impact, evacuation was not an option available to the Home Secretary.

While the government could decline to offer citizens advice since the risk was low, or could suggest that if they wished they could stay inside, Hurd recommended that the government needed to give specific advice to avoid being “criticised for indecisiveness” while avoiding “closing down the country for at least part of a day on the basis of a 1 in 50 chance”.

Hurd felt that 12-18 hours before the final orbit “we should formally advise everyone to stay indoors, or at least in the protection provided by a vehicle, for the final 90 minutes” but only “if the UK lies under the final orbit and the safety device has failed”.

According to a report in Science journal, ground control lost contact with the Cosmos 1900 satellite before it could send a radio signal to trigger core separation. In fact, they seemed to lose contact just five months after the satellite was placed in orbit. However, the secondary on-board safety device worked and made the satellite safe before its final descent to Earth.

In the event that the satellite had crashed and scattered its toxic debris – 110 pounds of enriched Uranium 235 – on Northern Ireland soil, a briefing paper details the planned multi-agency response involving the RUC, the NI Tactical Advice Group and the NI Radiological Protection Service, as well as a protocol to pass reports to Whitehall and nuclear scientists at Aldermaston.

The location and size of debris would have been recorded so that costs for damage could be reimbursed from Russia under international law.

Ultimately the satellite burnt up upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere and the reactor core continues to orbit the Earth every 99 minutes, some 450 miles above our heads.

No where in the file is there any reference to consultation with the Irish Government or any consideration of cross-border cooperation or pooling of resources against the threat of a satellite that doesn’t respect borders when it plans its final flightpath.

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