What is the role of the Environmental Protection Agency?
The Environmental Protection Agency is at the front line of environmental protection and policing in Ireland. Within the EPA, the Office of Radiological Protection has national responsibility for regulating, monitoring and advising on matters relating to ionising radiation. In particular, the Office concerns itself with hazards to health associated with ionising radiation and with radioactive contamination in the environment.
Some of the key functions of the EPA Office of Radiological Protection are:
- To provide information to the public on any matters relating to radiological safety which the Institute deems fit.
- To maintain and develop a national laboratory for the measurement of levels of radioactivity in the environment, and to assess the significance of these levels for the Irish population.
- To monitor developments abroad relating to nuclear installations and radiological safety generally, and to keep the Government informed of their implications for Ireland.
- To assist in the development of national plans for emergencies arising from nuclear accidents and to act in support of such plans.
What type of incidents does the Plan cater for?
Incidents abroad that could affect Ireland include an accident at a nuclear plant, a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant or a nuclear explosion in another country. Incidents in Ireland that could affect people or the environment include local dispersal of radioactive substances by spillages, fires, dumping etc. The Plan also caters for marine incidents close to the coast such as nuclear-powered ships or submarines and ships carrying radioactive materials.
What would be the effect on Ireland of a severe nuclear reactor incident?
The likelihood of a significant release of radioactivity from a nuclear reactor anywhere is extremely small and the likelihood of one affecting Ireland is even more remote. In order to gain further insight into their assessment of this risk, key staff members of the predecessor of the EPA Office of Radiological Protection, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII), participated in a technical visit to the Wylfa nuclear reactor in Wales in October 2006. At a distance of 110 km, this is the closest nuclear reactor to Ireland. Following discussions with the UK nuclear regulator and with the plant operator on accident scenarios, the RPII simulated the potential impact of the reference accident (worst credible accident) on Ireland. The RPII concluded that even under unfavourable weather conditions, this would not result in radioactive doses in Ireland which would justify evacuation, remaining indoors or the use of iodine tablets. Agriculture and tourism would be among the sectors of the Irish economy that would suffer most from nuclear contamination.
Detailed EPA report of their Wylfa visit
Would the proposed new nuclear plants in the UK pose a significant operating and accident risk to Ireland?
In 2013 the RPII published a report on the potential radiological impact on Ireland of new nuclear power plants that may be built at up to eight sites in the UK before 2025. The report examined possible impacts of these plants during their day-to-day operations, and in the event of severe accidents taking place.
The report shows that the routine operation of the proposed nuclear power plants will have no measurable radiological impact on Ireland or the Irish marine environment.
Five severe accident scenarios were assessed as part of the study that range in likelihood of occurrence from 1 in 50,000 to 1 in 33 million per year. In general, the less likely the accident, the greater the radiological impact in Ireland. Food controls and agricultural protective measures would be required if any of these accidents occurred to ensure that food on sale in Ireland was safe to eat. In the case of the most severe accident scenario examined in the study, short-term measures such as sheltering would also be required. In none of the scenarios evaluated was evacuation found to be an appropriate response.
The report also examined the consequences of a large accidental release of radioactivity to the Irish Sea equivalent in size to that after the Fukushima accident. It found that the resulting radiation dose to people in Ireland, who eat very large quantities of fish and shellfish, would be less than the annual radiation dose limit for the public.
The report shows that any radioactive contamination in the air, either from day-to-day operation of the proposed nuclear power plants or resulting from an accident, would be transported away from Ireland most of the time. This conclusion arises from an analysis of weather conditions prevailing in Ireland and the UK over the past 21 years.
EPA report on the potential radiological impact of proposed UK nuclear power plants
How much warning time would Ireland have of an incident abroad?
Nuclear plants are designed to contain radioactive material in the event of an accident. This, together with Ireland's distance from these facilities mean that there would be advance warning time to Ireland before any radioactivity released would reach Ireland. Comprehensive and regularly tested notification systems are also in place between Ireland and the UK which will ensure Ireland is informed immediately of any significant release of radioactivity.
How will the public be informed in an emergency?
Radio and television media will be used to regularly update the public with information during an emergency. Until further information is available on the accident and any radioactive releases, the public may be advised to GO IN, STAY IN, TUNE IN.
What would be the impact on health?
There would be no immediate health effects in Ireland. In the years following the accident, there may be a small increased risk of certain cancers but it is unlikely that any increase in cancer rates would be detectable over current rates. You can greatly reduce your own risk by following the advice given. Stay tuned to national radio or TV for details of what to do.
Restrictions on the production and consumption of certain foodstuffs from particular areas may be implemented in the days and weeks following an incident. It is very unlikely that other protective measures would be necessary.
Will some parts of the country be more contaminated than others?
Contamination will vary with time and location over the entire country. This is why it is best for the public to heed the advice and not to attempt unnecessary travel or try to self-evacuate under the mistaken assumption that moving to another location would reduce the radiation dose. A careful analysis of the consequences of the incident will be immediately undertaken by the EPA and others following notification of the incident. Public information updates will be provided by Government at regular intervals. It should be remembered that the greatest dose risk for Ireland following an incident at a nuclear plant abroad would be from eating contaminated food but this will be avoided by introducing early restrictions on eating certain food items. This is one of the fundamental responses of the Plan.
Why will evacuation not be needed?
Evacuation would not be needed for a nuclear accident, even for one in the UK, irrespective of rainfall and wind direction. Wylfa in North Wales, the nearest UK nuclear plant to Ireland, is 110 km from the Irish coastline. This distance is well beyond the internationally accepted distance of up to 30 km to consider evacuation. By following the advice and not evacuating, people have the advantage of the comforts and facilities of their homes, schools or workplaces as opposed to the unnecessary inconvenience caused by relocating and the consequential social and traffic disruption.
Will it be safe to go to work or school?
EPA assessments show that it is unlikely that remaining indoors even for a few hours would be needed anywhere in Ireland. If however this is recommended as an initial precaution, it does not mean that there will be a national shutdown. It may be necessary for some people to go outside for urgent business and for essential service providers to fulfil their normal functions. This is why the initial message to GO IN, STAY IN AND TUNE IN is important. In the hours following the incident, comprehensive information updates will be given to specific sectors of the population.
How will decisions be made in an emergency?
If the NEPNA is activated, senior representatives of each of the Departments/Agencies will meet, in Dublin, as the Emergency Response Coordination Committee (ERCC). The Committee will be chaired by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and will consider the expert advice provided by the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies regarding the measures to protect the population. It will remain in session until the crisis has passed. The ERCC will report to a sub-committee of the Cabinet which will make the final decisions about response measures to be taken.
How does the NEPNA compare to other Emergency Plans?
NEPNA is one of a number of national interdepartmental and interagency plans for major emergencies. Agencies also have regional and local major emergency plans for events of a more localised consequence. The Plan is designed to best international practice and has been prepared in accordance with Article 37 of the Radiological Protection Act, 1991 (Ionising Radiation) Order (SI 125 of 2000) and conforms to the International Atomic Energy Agency recommendations - Safety Standard Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency (GS-R-2).
How is Ireland notified about nuclear incidents abroad?
Rapid notification to the Garda national contact point is provided 24/7 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (in Vienna) and the European Commission (in Luxembourg). Ireland also has a Bilateral Agreement with the UK to receive immediate notification of any nuclear incidents. Once alerted, Gardaí can begin to activate the emergency response plan by notifying key staff in the relevant Government Departments and Agencies. All of these arrangements are tested regularly.
How is radioactive contamination detected in Ireland?
A national network of permanent monitoring stations, which continuously check the level of background radiation across the country, is operated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with the support of Met Éireann, Local Authorities and the Department of Defence. If the network detects elevated radiation levels, it automatically alerts the EPA's duty officer who will assess the situation. In addition, the EPA has access to RIMNET - the UK network, supplying data on an hourly basis from a radiation monitoring network of 94 stations. Also available is EURDEP - the EU radiological data exchange platform which provides relevant information from most European countries and would be continuously updated during an emergency.
EPA radiation monitoring network
Will it be safe to drink water from the tap?
Yes, it will be safe to drink tap water. Any contamination that found its way into reservoirs or rivers would be enormously diluted by the volume of water present in the reservoir or river. Provisions are in place for sampling and testing of water supplies.
How would weather affect the contamination level?
Wind direction and rainfall are important factors. Ireland's prevailing westerly winds mean the chances of contamination reaching here would be considerably lower than if the winds were easterly. In an emergency, the EPA would use the latest Met Éireann forecast data to predict which areas might become contaminated.
More information on an analysis of wind patterns over Ireland
Is the Plan tested?
Testing the Plan by way of exercises is an important feature of emergency preparedness. The most recent exercise ('EURANOS') took place in November 2007. This exercise concentrated on the food protection aspects of the Plan. The report from this exercise and others can be downloaded from this site.
What were the health and environmental effects of Chernobyl?
The 1986 Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union was the most serious nuclear reactor accident to date. In addition to a flawed reactor design and poor operator training, the accident was compounded by the critical absence of a secondary radioactive containment structure that is present in today's nuclear reactors. For more information on how Ireland was affected at the time, please see the reports below:
EPA report Chernobyl and its effects on Ireland
Where can I find more information on Emergency Planning?
A NEPNA explanatory document and associated information leaflets in Irish and English are available.
An MP3 audio version for the visually impaired of the National Emergency Plan for Nuclear Accidents is available. Please contact the Division below for a copy.