Health and Social Care Bill

Memorandum submitted by Michael O’Riordan (HS 122)

PREPAREDNESS FOR NUCLEAR EMERGENCIES

1. The complex radiological response in Japan to the nuclear accident at Fukushima and the uneven media coverage in the UK should cause the Government to reconsider how best to prepare for the possibility of nuclear emergencies or radiation accidents that might arise in or affect this country.

2. When the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl reached the UK during the Mayday weekend in 1986, the scientific response was anchored by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), a public body at arm’s length from Government. It conducted measurements, assessed the risks, advised Ministers, informed the press, and dealt with questions from many members of the public. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, the NRPB contributed much to the improvement of nuclear emergency schemes throughout Europe.

3. The NRPB had belatedly been created by Parliament in 1970 mainly to remedy the organisational deficiencies revealed by the national response to the Windscale nuclear accident some thirteen years earlier, when responsibility for radiation safety had been divided between the Ministry of Health, the Medical Research Council, and the Atomic Energy Authority.

4. The statutory functions of the NRPB were to conduct research and provide advice to Government Departments and others on the protection of the community from the hazards of ionising and non-ionising radiations including the standards of protection to be achieved in normal and emergency circumstances. It was also empowered to provide and charge for technical services.

5. In scientific and managerial terms, members of NRPB staff were well equipped to deal with radiation protection generally and nuclear emergencies in particular. A succession of strong boards and directors guaranteed the independence and integrity of the organisation and took it to international pre-eminence in its field. In the last year of its existence, the statutory functions of the NRPB cost the exchequer less than £7M because of the considerable income from commercial services.

6. When the NRPB was abolished by statute in 2005, its functions were transferred to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in a consolidation of disparate bodies sponsored by the Department of Health. It became a minor component of a much larger entity with some loss of identity and impact. Now the Government proposes to abolish the HPA and transfer its functions to an even bigger body, Public Health England, probably as a Directorate within the Department of Health. Under the terms of the Bill, provision is being made for the devolved administrations also to exercise radiation protection functions.

7. Complicating matters further is likely to be the activation of a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) by the Government in the event of a nuclear accident. Such a group, supported by scientists previously in the NRPB, has been advising the Government on the implications of the Fukushima accident for British citizens in Japan. The origins of the SAGE concept can be traced back to the handling of the BSE crisis.

8. The proposed intricate set of arrangements is likely to cause delay and confusion in the urgent wake of a nuclear accident. What is needed is an expert authority dedicated to radiological protection whose members have absorbed and rehearsed the scientific skills needed to deal with such an event. They would be able to assess radiological conditions quickly and confidently and devise the best means of minimising the exposure of workers and the public to radiation and radioactive substances. And in the medium term, they would be able to advise on the best remedial actions in the areas affected by the accident.

9. In short, it would seem prudent to re-examine the relevant proposals in the Bill and reconsider the merits of a discrete and effective organisation modelled on the NRPB.

10. My name is Michael O’Riordan. I am a former secretary of the NRPB and author of a history of the organisation: "Radiation Protection: A Memoir of the National Radiological Protection Board" 2007. (ISBN 978-0-85951-586-3).

March 2011