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"Write something worth reading or do something worth writing" A blog by Amy Willis, a multimedia journalist based in London

Left in the dark

As Britain moves closer to the rebirth of the nuclear power industry, a special investigation by Amy Willis reveals that schools – only a matter of miles away from British nuclear power stations – are without stockpiles of anti-radiation drugs and information about what to do in a nuclear emergency.

Thousands of children at schools as close as one mile from a nuclear power station are without basic information for what to do in the event of a radiation leak. They have never completed any sheltering drills and head teachers remain clueless of procedures if there was a problem.

The schools also do not have stockpiles of the anti-radiation drug – potassium iodide – despite nearby residents having them available in their homes and World Health Organisation guidelines stating children are more sensitive to radiation exposure if pills are not taken immediately.

Head teachers at several schools – some as close to a nuclear power station as a mile away – expressed fears at not knowing what to do if there was a nuclear leak due to a lack involvement in nuclear training exercises.

The schools also revealed they had never done drills to practice sheltering procedures.

And only one school – Innerwick Primary School in Scotland  – was able to confirm they have stockpiles of the tablets despite World Health Organisation guidelines saying children are more at risk to the exposure of radiation if pills are not available immediately. The school is one mile away from Torness Nuclear Power Plant.

Somerset Council said Stogursey Primary School, which is three miles from Hinkley Point B Nuclear Power Station, also had the pills although the school declined to confirm this.

Head teacher Nerys Tegid of Caemes Bay Primary School, in North Wales, has been asking for the anti-radiation pills and information for a couple of months yet she has received nothing. The school is one-and-a-half miles from Wylfa Nuclear Power Station and has 73 pupils.

She said: “We have been asking the power station for drills but we haven’t heard anything. We have no iodide tablets and no updated information – in fact it has been 10 years since we were last given any information about procedures. There was some talk to supply them from the surgery in the village but I don’t think this has happened either.

“Normally Wylfa nuclear power station are very supportive but not with this.”
Ms Tegid is not alone. Jacquie Croft, head teacher of Leiston Primary School, which is about two miles from Sizewell Nuclear Power Plant, said she had been appointed in September last year yet no one had been in touch to brief her about emergency procedures.

She said: “You would expect them to get in touch with me but they have not bothered. You can see the plant from our school gates but apparently we are not close enough for pills.

“There are nearly 300 children in the school. If there was a problem and it bounces to me, I would like to know what is going on. At the moment I would have to rely on a piece of paper which doesn’t even have a date on it. It is just a piece of card, which could be 10 – 15 years old for all I know.

“It would make sense to me if there was a management change at a school in my area to make sure they knew the procedures.”

Nuclear safety campaigner Sean Morris, who used to be an emergency planning officer, was not surprised by the revelations.

“The only way emergency planning will work is if it is tested. If an incident were to happen, parents might ignore guidelines and go to fetch their children from the school. Teachers need to know how to deal with situations like this- if not, if something were to happen it would end up as total chaos,” he said.

Mr Morris also said stockpiles of anti-radiation drugs in schools are essential otherwise radiation may reach the children before the pills do.
He said: “A study recently showed it would take nine hours for leaked radiation to reach Norway. If this is the case then I would question if schools only a few miles away from a power station would be able to get the tablets in time. The radiation would move too quickly.”

The Radiation Emergency Preparedness and Public Information regulations (Reppir) suggest that schools and residents “in an area likely to be affected by a radiation emergency “should be fully informed  about what to do without having to request the information.

In the UK, this area, also called an emergency planning zone, can be anything from 1 kilometre to 3.5 kilometres.

But in America this zone is much bigger. A spokesperson for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), said their zone is 10 miles with a secondary 50 mile zone to check for potential contamination in the food chain. This is what they consider to be the best precautionary zone due to their understanding of the physics of a potential situation. The spokesman also said drills were carried out in all the schools within this zone.

Shadow Minister for Energy Charles Hendry said: “Nuclear power stations are becoming safer all the time, as safety standards are the top priority in the design of new reactors and are continually updated.

“However, it is quite shocking if even the most basic training or guidance is not provided to communities, schools or workers in the vicinity of our nuclear power stations.

“If the UK is to replace and expand our nuclear power stations we must make absolutely sure that there is a comprehensive plan of action to be followed to the letter, in the unlikely event of an accident.”

Shadow Schools Minister Nick Gibb added: “It’s vital that schools that are most at risk are properly prepared. The Government must ensure that every step is taken to make sure parents can be reassured that their children are safe whilst in class.”

British Energy, who own most nuclear power plants in the UK, defended the situation. A spokesperson said: “British Energy, part of EDF Energy, has robust and regularly exercised emergency plans. Only two of our sites – Hinkley in Somerset and Torness in East Lothian – have schools within the emergency planning zones.

“Even though there has not been an incident in the 50 years of the civil nuclear industry in the UK, we take our responsibility seriously.

“We abide by regulations dictated by various authorities including the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the Health Protection Agency, the Environment Agency and others.

“We exercise our plans regularly with the emergency services and others.

“Over and above this, we enjoy regular open contact with our communities around all our sites and maintain good dialogue and regular meetings with community members including schools and neighbours.”

A spokesman for Magnox, who own Wylfa Nuclear Power Station and Oldbury Nuclear Power Station, said: “The emergency planning zone is set by the Health and Safety Executive, using information contained in our Hazard Identification and Risk Evaluation Report.

“The Local Authority are responsible for maintaining the offsite emergency plan.

“The decision to set the zone is based on reactor type, the safety case, the radioactive inventory held on each site and the potential risks to employees and the local population. All these factors are different at each site, therefore, the zone is different at each site.

“Neither Oldbury nor Cemaes Schools are within an emergency planning zone and, in accordance with the plan, are not pre-issued with Potassium Iodide tablets. Decisions on pre-distribution of the tablets were made in full consultation between ourselves, the emergency services, the Local Authorities and the Local Health Authorities.

“Our emergency plans are flexible and the NHS does hold stocks of the tablets which can be distributed – if appropriate.

“Our safety systems and processes are amongst the most stringent and heavily regulated of any industry and our safety record is amongst the best in the world.”

The Health and Safety Executive and the office of Energy and Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband, declined to comment.

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Filed under: UK News

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