Chernobyl and Sellafield – encouraging council interest in emergency planning but dismissing their nuclear scepticism #20YearRule

The Chernobyl disaster released fission products into the atmosphere above the Ukrainian nuclear power plant on 25 and 26 April 1986 which drifted over the Soviet Union and Europe scattering radioactive contamination.

In the months and years that followed, UK government working groups wrote reports on “the Lessons of Chernobyl”.

“After some initial problems” officials in Northern Ireland were “closely involved” with the working party as it drew up plans to build a radiation monitoring network (RIMNET) to automate the measurement of radioactivity in the air at stations across the UK to aid the response to “peace time nuclear accidents”.

Official papers released under the 20 year rule in file NIO/28/2/44A [PDF] indicate that the Northern Ireland Office wished to site automated monitoring stations in

  • Aldergrove
  • Silent Valley
  • Ballinrees
  • Castle Archdale

They also desired the continuous measurement of radioactivity levels in drinking water in key locations – the Silent Valley reservoir and at a DOE Water Extraction Plant at Dunore Point on Lough Neagh – which “provide the vast majority of the Northern Ireland population with drinking water”.

If you head down to the Public Records Office you can check out file NIO/28/2/44A and read how the Secretary of State Tom King’s office responded to a letter from the clerk of Omagh District Council In November 1987 who wrote “on behalf of a convocation of Councils … pledged to achieving the closure of the Sellafield Nuclear Complex”.

[Ed – 30 years later and Sellafield is still open … and there are plans to build a nuclear power station nearby.]

On the one hand … Mr S McKillop described the press release which accompanied the letter as “tendentious and unconstructively critical of government policy as regards nuclear installations generally” and prepared a draft response.

On the other … the official did concede that the council “does however raise a relevant practical issue as regards the necessity, post Chernobyl of reviewing emergency planning procedures and the role of District Councils in the process”.

However, he concluded that “it is difficult to identify any significant role for them within the monitoring or scientific assessment aspects of the Contingency Plan” and suggested that “their input may be confined mainly to a P/R advisory role where indeed their access and proximity to the general public could prove a most valuable asset”.

It was “encouraging to note any voluntary interest by District Councils in this aspect [emergency planning procedures] of national protection” and would be “advantageous to foster interest whilst at the same time avoiding suggesting any unrealistic future roles which District Councils in their limited jurisdiction would have neither the resources nor the expertise to fulfil”.

None of this arms-length Sir Humphrey-esque thinking was noted in the bland three paragraph draft reply to the council chief executive!