In a story that surely sends all the wrong signals, the media reported how a massive turnout was made by the fire service and police in Edinburgh, as they launched a procedure called National Arrangements for Incidents Involving Radiation.
Understandably, the name of this procedure suggests it has been put into place to avoid confusion and uncertainty when deciding how to responds to reports of an incident involving radiation. However, one can’t help but think that it was conceived to deal with incidents involving accidents where there a significant amount of radioactive material is involved, and not a first line response to the discovery of a suspect radioactive package discovered in a cupboard in a school.
No numbers were given for the police attendance, but of the fire service, eight appliances and 28 fire service personnel were reported as having attended the incident.
By comparison, a blaze at a block of flats in Market Street in Aberdeen’s city centre less than 24 hours later attracted a mere five appliances, even though the resulting road closure between Union Street and Guild Street caused problems with rush hour traffic.
No reason was given as to why the packages were suspect radioactive (external markings?), but one can’t help but think the initial response should have been considerably more low-key in its approach, and not to flood the area with such numbers of personnel and equipment, and that as few should have been subject to potential exposure as possible, until an expert, such as the one that attended from Torness (nuclear power station) had assessed the level of activity, or not.
Ultimately, no radiation was found outside the containers involved, and the contents were determined to be ex-school science lab educational training materials dating back to 1994, and relatively trivial , unless you’re a radiophobe.
Your poor scribe can write with some authority on this one, as he, and all his workmates found themselves in the same situation a few years ago. Having received some radiation detection equipment for repair (to the electronics), he was alarmed to see that they had been transported along with their test source. This was of medical origin, and therefore likely to be more powerful than school based material, and more alarmingly, appeared to be damaged!
A quick check with his own basic Geiger counter showed all was well, and there was nothing ‘loose’ – all the activity was still confined to the designated ‘hot’ zone. However, we still had to contact the NRPB (note, NRPB joined the Health Protection Agency on April 1, 2005) to investigate, and give everyone, and our premises, the official All Clear, including the unfortunate employees that had gone off on holiday, who had to be contacted and warned. This was for two reasons: most important for us was to identify the source and ensure the correct detector was used; and second to deal with the organisation that sent us the nuclear material in the first place. They should have known better than to place a contractor at risk, having delivered the material without a warning or alert, and also that they were breaking the regulations regarding the transport of nuclear material by sending it without the appropriate documentation and clearances.
This involved a more powerful source of radiation that the Edinburgh incident, and was all dealt with calmly by one NRPB official with no media hysteria, no fire service, and no police.
Which scenario actually handled the situation best in the real world?
Are we seeing the knock-on effect of the Alexander Litvinenko case?