Belfast Telegraph

State papers: Northern Ireland response to nuclear emergency redrawn in wake of the Chernobyl accident

1986 State papers

By Adrian Rutherford

Plans for how Northern Ireland should respond to a nuclear emergency were quickly redrawn in the wake of the Chernobyl accident.

Officials noted that our reaction to the 1986 crisis had been lacking in urgency and co-ordination.

We had also been "let down" by Britain because civil servants in London were too busy looking after their own backyards, government papers reveal.

A sudden power surge destroyed one of four nuclear reactors at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, releasing massive amounts of radioactive material.

It was the world's worst peacetime nuclear disaster.

A series of panicked memos from London and Belfast is contained in newly-released files from the Public Record Office.

Although officials in Belfast felt the risk here was low, they were warned by experts that their response was too relaxed.

A letter sent by Cecil McMurray, a professor at the Department of Agriculture, to its permanent secretary describes his concern.

"It is almost dismissive of the impact/effect of Chernobyl on N. Ireland," Prof McMurray wrote.

"It leaves one with the impression we are so far away it hardly matters. This is far from the case."

A letter sent to the chief medical officer by a senior medic at the Royal Victoria Hospital highlights the lack of information on radiation and radioactivity of samples taken in Northern Ireland.

The radioactive cloud arrived over Northern Ireland on May 3.

On May 2 a Finnish cargo ship which docked in Belfast was found to have "hot spots" on parts of its decks and cargo. It was hosed down while two crew members were tested for radiation.

Arrangements had also been made for the Royal's A&E department to screen tourists returning from the Soviet Union.

By late 1988 a plan for dealing with a peacetime nuclear emergency discussed how a Northern Ireland emergency committee would lead the response. An operations centre would be located at "a civil defence building" at Mount Eden Park in Belfast.

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