NREFS at the UK parliament: coping with a big nuclear accident

The NREFS project was invited to present its findings at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear Energy at the UK Parliament on Wednesday 11th March 2015.  The meeting was hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and chaired by Ian Liddell-Grainger MP.

Professor Philip Thomas (University of Bristol) introduced the NREFS project.  He revealed  the stand-out message from the research: nuclear power is a lot less scary than many fear even when it goes badly wrong.

Dr Ian Waddington (Ross Technologies, Bristol) presented the results of a J-value analysis on evacuation, relocation and countermeasures after a big nuclear accident.  Relocating large numbers of people (nearly one-third of a million) after the Chernobyl accident was a waste of resources.  The average person gained an extra 21 days of life but at a huge financial and social cost.  Only 17,000 people should have been moved.  Restrictions on the consumption of British lamb imposed after Chernobyl cost hundreds of times too much and extended UK lives by about 30 seconds.

Presenting the University of Manchester study, Dr Paul Johnson introduced their application of optimal control theory to evaluate whether relocation, remediation or food bans should be implemented following a nuclear accident.  The preferred strategy is to impose an immediate but temporary food ban.  For a large accident there should be temporary relocation for 1-2 years with remediation commencing after several weeks.  For a medium accident, there should be no relocation but remediation should begin immediately.

A hypothetical nuclear accident in the south of England was the topic of Professor William Nuttall’s presentation from the Open University.  The simulation indicated that 200,000 people would need to shelter inside during the accident and 20,000 would need to be evacuated.  Around 12,000 should be relocated temporarily but only 600 would need to be relocated on a permanent basis.  The small risk from radiation-induced cancer must be balanced against the risk of harm induced by evacuation and relocation.

Professor Thomas summarized the strategies for coping with a big nuclear accident.  Severe nuclear accidents are rare but experience shows that they can occur (Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi).  Objective methods can provide rigorous justification of post-accident strategies.  The J-value, optimal control and computer simulation studies all show that the potential threat to the public is small even afer the worst nuclear accident.  Most of the harm has come from  unjustified fear and worry, and from the social disruption and dislocation caused by the unnecessary relocation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Slides from all the presentations are available on the publications page.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear Energy is an informal, cross-party, interest group whose purpose is to provide a discussion forum between the nuclear energy industry and parliamentarians.

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