Nuclear: emergency planning and atmospheric testing programme

Information about the Nuclear Accident Response Organisation (NARO) and the UK atmospheric nuclear testing programme.

Nuclear security and emergency planning

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) maintains a Nuclear Accident Response Organisation (NARO) to respond to an accident or incident, including one arising through terrorist acts, involving defence nuclear assets. Defence nuclear assets include: nuclear weapons, special nuclear materials, nuclear facilities and naval nuclear reactors.

The MOD is also nominated as the lead government department to coordinate the UK central government response to a defence nuclear accident, including as appropriate, liaison with the devolved administrations.

Planning for nuclear accident response is undertaken in varying detail depending on the assessed probability of an accident occurring and of it resulting in a public health hazard. In addition to having a proper concern for public safety, the MOD as a department of state has to consider the sensitive and sometimes unique nature of its operations, the consequences of a defence nuclear accident for national defence policy and the public expectations of a government department.

Emergency preparedness for accidents which may affect members of the public involves many external organisations, such as local authorities, other government departments and emergency services, some of whom have specific statutory responsibilities.

Accordingly, it is essential that planning for nuclear accident response is conducted in an open manner and in conjunction with the appropriate authorities both to meet the department’s legal obligations, to provide information and for external authorities to gain confidence in the efficacy of the arrangements.

The MOD conducts a regular series of exercises, involving local authorities, local emergency service and agencies across government in order to ensure the effectiveness of the nuclear accident emergency plans.

Role of the Nuc Sy & EP team in security and emergency planning

The operational role of Nuc Sy & EP team is:

  • to maintain and develop central MOD policy for the provision of an effective defence NARO. This includes maintaining a capability to discharge HQ and lead government department functions in the event of a defence nuclear accident
  • to form a core team of secretariat and operational staff both within the HQ NARO (national strategic command)
  • to facilitate the lead government department role in the event of a defence nuclear accident or incident
  • to manage and coordinate the MOD effort in maintaining and developing the NARO infrastructure
  • to lead the planning for the HQNARO and central government aspects of defence nuclear accident response exercises

The policy and secretariat role of the Nuc Sy & EP team is:

  • to provide central HQ focus for parliamentary questions and enquiries relating to the department’s NARO
  • to provide the departmental lead in response to new nuclear accident response legislation
  • to provide central departmental focus for liaison with local authorities, civil emergency services, other government departments and foreign governments on MOD nuclear accident response Issues
  • to maintain MOD ‘intelligent customer’ and act as Nuclear Accident Response Information Management System (NARIMS) System Manager in liaison with the Defence Procurement Agency and the NARIMS support contractor
  • sponsor of the public Local Authority and Emergency Services Information (LAESI) document detailing defence nuclear materials, transport accident response arrangements
  • sponsor of JSP 471: defence nuclear accident response
  • sponsor of the third tier arrangement, implementing the joint operational plan between UK MOD and HQ US European Command (the response to an accident involving US nuclear weapons in UK)
  • to provide MOD representation on the Nuclear Emergency Planning and Liaison Group (NEPLG) and its subcommittees

UK atmospheric nuclear testing programme

Between 1952 and 1958 the UK conducted a total of 21 atmospheric nuclear tests in Australia and at islands in the Pacific Ocean. In addition, a number of minor trials were also conducted in Australia between 1953 and 1963. UK personnel also participated in US nuclear weapons tests based at Christmas Island in 1962. Over 20,000 UK service personnel and civilian scientists were involved in the tests.

Test health and safety precautions

The trials were planned with meticulous care and the health and safety of test participants was of the utmost importance. Hazards from ionising radiation and radioactivity were well understood and controlled and dosimetry measurements were of a standard which would be acceptable today.

Prior to each detonation all personnel were mustered and accounted for. At the time of burst, all personnel not on essential duties were mustered outside, away from trees or buildings susceptible to blast damage, facing away from the point of burst with their eyes closed, this offered protection from flash blindness. Protection from heat, air blast and ionising radiation effects was assured by maintaining a sufficient distance from the point of detonation.

Selected personnel, including those handling the device or those responsible for decontamination of cloud testing aircraft, were provided with film badges in order to monitor their exposure. Despite confidence in the precautions taken to prevent fallout on Christmas Island, an extensive programme of environmental monitoring was performed after each test. This confirmed that no significant fallout had occurred direct from a UK detonation.

Post-test health issues

There is no evidence of excess illness or mortality amongst the veterans as a group which could be linked to their participation in the tests or to exposure to radiation as a result of that participation. In response to the health concerns of some veterans, the MOD commissioned independent National Radiological Protection Board (now part of the Health Protection Agency) to study cancer incidence and mortality amongst nuclear test participants.

The last report, NRPB-W27 entitled “Mortality and Cancer Incidence 1952-1998 in UK Participants in the UK Atmospheric Nuclear Weapons Tests and Experimental Programmes” was published in 2003 and concluded that overall levels of mortality and cancer incidence among nuclear weapons test participants have continued to be similar to those in a matched control group, and for overall mortality to be lower than expected from national rates.

The MOD has every confidence in these independent studies, and therefore believe that there are no grounds for compensation to be paid to British nuclear test veterans. However, where individual veterans are able to produce reliable evidence to raise a reasonable doubt that their illness is related to their service, they are entitled to a War Pension.

British nuclear test veterans: health needs audit

Following the announcement by the Veterans minister, the MOD commissioned an independent expert group to conduct a health needs audit.

The aim of the audit was to identify the health experiences, concerns and health and social care needs of British Nuclear Test Veterans. The audit was carried out using postal survey questionnaires sent to all British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA) veteran members resident in the UK and a number of regional focus groups with a sub-set of survey respondents.

A total of 891 questionnaires were sent out and 633 returned. This gave a high response rate of 71%. For the focus groups 84 veterans took part in 8 focus groups that were held at various locations around the country. The average age of those who took part was 74 years.

British nuclear test veterans health needs audit final report

It was found that this group of veterans were in the main very happy with the medical and social services available with the NHS in particular providing an overall outstanding and professional service. Access to social services was slightly less well received.

Views among respondents about whether their health was affected by their participation in the nuclear tests was mixed, with 51% saying that they were certain or thought their health had been affected by their participation. An almost equal number (49%) said that they were either unsure (24%), didn’t know either way (11%), that the tests definitely had not caused their ill-health (8%) or didn’t express an opinion (6%).

The audit found that in addition to concerns over radiation exposure other factors may have impacted on veterans’ health such as exposure to DDT insecticide, exposure to sun and work related injuries.

The audit reported on medical conditions that the veterans were currently suffering from or had suffered from in the past. The most common under both headings was musculoskeletal conditions with heart and circulatory related problems being the second most commonplace.

The audit was not designed or intended to include a survey about descendants’ health. However, veterans were asked for their views on whether it had been affected by their attendance at the tests. The audit found that 29% stated that they were sure that it had impacted on their descendants’ health whilst 44% were either less certain or said they didn’t know. 19% said that they did not believe that there was a link.

Read the health needs audit final report below. It includes an executive summary at the beginning which summarises the audit and its findings.

Getting a copy of your service records

To find out more about your part in the British nuclear test programme you can obtain information from your military service records.

The information will most likely be personal to you so we will therefore need to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to protect it. For example, you may well be asked to provide proof of identity. This might mean that we take a bit longer to respond to any requests but is an important part of our service to you to protect and look after all of the information we hold for veterans.

If you wish to obtain a copy of your service records you will need to complete the DPA SAR 1694 form to make Subject Access Request for personal information.

Subject Access Request form (SAR)

Updates to this page

Published 12 December 2012
Last updated 19 February 2013 + show all updates
  1. Added link for 'post nuclear emergency response exercise reports'

  2. First published.

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