What should I do in a nuclear emergency?

A nuclear incident overseas – even a serious explosion at a nuclear plant across the Irish Sea in the UK – would not cause any short-term health effects in Ireland.  If a radioactive plume reaches Ireland there could be heightened radiation exposure. In the longer term, this could lead to a small increased cancer risk within the Irish population.  It is unlikely that any increase in cancer rates over current rates would be detectable.

Go in, stay in, tune in

The objective of any actions envisaged in nuclear emergency planning is to reduce the exposure of people to radiation in the aftermath of a nuclear emergency.

A nuclear accident in the UK or Europe could release a radioactive plume into the atmosphere. Depending on the wind speed and direction, it could eventually reach Ireland.

Staying indoors is one way of reducing exposure to radiation following a nuclear accident abroad. Due to Ireland’s distance from any nuclear facility, it is unlikely that anyone in Ireland would need to stay indoors.

However, if staying indoors for a few hours is recommended as an initial precaution, it would not lead to a national shutdown.  Essential providers such as ambulance personnel, firefighters, utility providers etc would continue to carry out their duties, while others may need to go outside on urgent business.

In the hours following the incident, comprehensive information updates will be provided including specific advice for certain groups within the population (such as farmers).

If the advice to ‘go in, stay in, tune in’ is given you should:

  1. Go in. Going indoors to your home, workplace or another indoor location could protect you from exposure to radiation and reduce your long term cancer risk.
  2. Stay in. You should remain indoors until advised by the authorities that the radioactive plume has moved on. This may take a few hours, depending on the nature of the accident, and the weather.
  3. Tune in. TV and radio stations – both state and commercial – will be kept fully briefed about the emergency. By keeping an eye on the TV or an ear on the radio, you will be kept updated with the latest news and advice, and informed if any actions such as remaining indoors are necessary. Information will also be made available via the website, www.emergencyplanning.ie and various Twitter channels.

Should I take iodine tablets?

In 2002, Irish households were issued with iodine tablets for use in a nuclear emergency. Stable iodine helps to counteract radioactive iodine, or radio-iodine, as it’s also known.

But circumstances have changed. With the closure of the two oldest and most vulnerable nuclear reactors in the UK – Calder Hall and Chapelcross – the threat of a major release of radio-iodine into the atmosphere has substantially receded.  So there is no longer a need to take iodine tablets.

Staying indoors if advised and avoiding contaminated foodstuffs after the emergency has subsidised, are by far the most effective ways of reducing your radiation dose from all radioactive materials.

What to do after the emergency is lifted?

The biggest potential public health threat in the aftermath of the emergency would come from radioactive contamination of foodstuffs, particularly from leafy vegetables, meat and dairy produce.Under the National Emergency Plan for Nuclear Accidents livestock, drinking water and foodstuffs will be monitored closely for radioactive contamination. If necessary, controls and restrictions will be imposed to protect the public from contaminated foodstuffs.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, along with the EPA and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland will enforce rigorous procedures nationally to ensure that all foods available for sale are safe. If necessary, this could include seizing and destroying contaminated agricultural produce, up to the point of retail sale.

Could drinking water become radioactive?

In the event of a nuclear emergency, drinking water would be monitored and analysed along with other foodstuffs. But it is highly unlikely that water supplies would be contaminated to levels which would require controls or restrictions.

Could I be evacuated during a nuclear emergency?

The international guidelines on nuclear protection recommend evacuation in certain circumstances. This involves moving the local population out of a contaminated area to a safer environment.

This could be a vital measure for reducing radiation exposure in the immediate vicinity of a nuclear accident. But there are no nuclear installations in Ireland. The nearest nuclear plant to Ireland is more than 100 km across the Irish Sea.

In Ireland any attempt to evacuate people in response to a nuclear emergency would be unnecessary - and even possibly counterproductive, exposing people to a greater radiation dose and other risks by moving them outdoors.

In some circumstances involving a local radiological incident - such as a spillage of radioactive materials – small scale local evacuation could possibly be an appropriate short-term safety precaution. But it would be an unsuitable response to a nuclear emergency abroad.