Could Suffolk be the next Chernobyl?
PUBLISHED: 19:30 27 June 2019
Sarah Lucy Brown
A recent Sky Atlantic drama revisited the Russian nuclear accident, revealing the true extent of the tragedy. Could it happen at Sizewell B? Our reporter finds out more...
Should we be worried about an impending nuclear disaster in Suffolk? Certainly in light of all the press around the recent Chernobyl TV series, many of us in the east may have cast a glance at the dome of Sizewell B, thinking "what if?"
The short answer to the question is no, it couldn't happen like that here.
It is something that Sizewell B operator EDF and its partner agencies, notably Suffolk County Council, have already asked, discussed and planned for.
The Chernobyl accident of April, 1986, is regarded as the world's worst nuclear disaster.
The catastrophic events began in the No. 4 nuclear reactor at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of Ukraine.
A series of mistakes and inherent weaknesses in the reactor precipitated an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction which sent radioactive contamination into the air for about nine days, affecting parts of the USSR and western Europe, before being finally contained eight days later.
What measures were put in place? A day and a half after the accident, a 10km exclusion zone was created and 49,000 people were evacuated. Shortly after, this zone was extended to 30km and a further 68,000 people were evacuated.
There is no agreed number of casualties. It is known there were two deaths caused by the steam blast at the plant and that 28 of 134 service men who were hospitalised with acute radiation syndrome (ARS) died within months. Of the remaining 106, around 14 more radiation-induced cancer deaths occurred within 10 years.
In the wider population there was a spike in childhood thyroid cancer deaths.
Estimates of reduced life expectancy vary from 4,000 people in a United Nations study to 200,000 in a Greenpeace study.
That such a thing could happen here, on the Suffolk coast, is unthinkable... but part of the responsibility of generating nuclear power is to think the unthinkable and plan for it.
A statement from EDF which runs Sizewell B, yesterday, says: "There has never been a radiation release in the history of the EDF Energy sites but the company continues to prepare and rehearse for this extremely unlikely event with a regular programme of exercises to make sure that people at the station and the emergency services are familiar with emergency plans.
"In the UK we also have arrangements in place for the small number of residents living within the detailed emergency planning zone (DEPZ) of each power station. For Sizewell B this is 1km.
"The off-site emergency plan is owned by Suffolk County Council (SCC) who, working the respective agencies including EDF Energy, identify a detailed planning zone which is immediately around the site and allow for pre-prepared counter measures to be in place such as stable iodine tablets and communications such as an automated telephone system."
Next stop, Suffolk County Council.
A spokesman explained that SCC is taking over responsibility from EDF as the lead agency in emergency planning as from April 2020.
The 1km zone around Sizewell B is the area that regularly gets safety updates and information about the power plant. Inside this first perimeter (DEPZ) there are about 40 to 50 properties, he said, adding that the Office for Nuclear Regulation has national protocols and policies that govern what is issued, even down to some of the wording. This ensures a consistent approach across all the country's nuclear power generators.
EDF and the county council do not work in isolation, other stakeholder groups are involved, including, for example, the Environment Agency and Friends of the Earth.
In the light of what happened at Chernobyl, people might be concerned that if anything did happen at Sizewell B, they might not be told about it immediately.
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"In the event something happened, (the news) would be immediate. We have a resilience."
Giving the example of the spring tides, the spokesman said: "If we see this is coming, we put the information out."
"Suffolk County Council works closely together with other agencies − in this case EDF − to ensure that prior information is up to date and any information in the highly unlikely event of an incident, would be delivered swiftly and accurately to all residents and communities," said the spokesman.
He said the zone beyond the 1km perimeter was broadly 15-20km and that this was currently under review. He added that everyone who works at Sizewell B has rigorous safety training.
Sounds like they're looking out for us.
Accidents in nuclear facilities
Level 7, major accident; Level 6, serious accident; level 5, accident with wider consequences.
Chernobyl (April 26, 1986): The explosion and subsequent meltdown that occurred there in April 1986 would claim many lives, cause birth defects and unleash a thyroid cancer epidemic on the region but it took years for the full story behind the catastrophe to emerge. Level 7
Mihama Nuclear Power Plant - Fukushima Prefecture, Japan: The 2011 Japan tsunami and earthquake devastated northeastern Japan and resulted in meltdowns at nuclear power plants in the country's Fukushima Prefecture. Level 7
Kyshtym (September 29, 1957): The Mayak nuclear fuel processing plant in the Russian town of Ozyorsk became the site of a major disaster when the cooling system in a waste storage tank failed, causing the dried radioactive material it contained to overheat and explode. A plume of deadly particles eventually spanned some 300 square miles. Level 6
Three Mile Island (March 28, 1979): The most serious nuclear accident in United States' history took place at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a brand-new facility. A pressure valve in one of the reactors failed to close and the core heated to over 4,000 degrees, 1,000 degrees short of meltdown. Level 5
Windscale (October 10, 1957): Britain's first nuclear reactor, Windscale, was built in northwest England in the late 1940s. Workers discovered the reactor's core had caught fire and had been ablaze for two days, releasing dangerous contaminants into the atmosphere. By the time the fire was out on October 12, a radioactive cloud was spreading across the United Kingdom and Europe. Level 5.
First Chalk River Accident - Chalk River, Ontario, Canada (Level 5)
In 1952, a nuclear reactor at the Chalk River Laboratories in Chalk River, Ontario suffered a loss of coolant and a damaged core, which eventually led to a partial meltdown of the reactor. It was the first nuclear accident in the history of nuclear energy. Level 5