What happens in the event of a nuclear incident?

In order to limit the potential damage resulting from a nuclear incident the degree of severity must  be quickly established. This is done in accordance with INES (the International Nuclear Events Scale). Moreover, any emergency situation or accident requires appropriate protection measures. All this is incorporated into the nuclear emergency plan. In Belgium compulsory procedures are part of the law.SCK•CEN works in partnership with the government to ensure that appropriate measures are in place for emergency situations. For instance, we study the possible impact and consequences of nuclear accidents. We also investigate how protective measures information can be conveyed to the population as quickly and correctly as possible. We also conduct radiological measurements and inspections in the event of nuclear incidents.

Principles of the Belgian emergency plan implementation

In the event of a nuclear incident in Belgium the operator of the nuclear installation in question is required to inform the federal government’s crisis centre immediately. The government will then decide on the basis of appropriate expertise which protection measures should be implemented. Radiological and technical experts, including SCK•CEN employees, will then convene in the evaluation cell of the federal crisis centre. They will advise the crisis committee which, under the supervision of the Home Secretary, will decide which protective measures to impose.
Provincial governors are responsible for the actual implementation of the decisions via various local emergency services such as the fire service, police, medical services, civil defence, etc. The info cell, which also operates from the crisis centre, is responsible for informing the population and media. If the situation requires a rapid response the provincial governor will immediately impose shielding measures in a specific zone around the installation. The operation of the emergency plan is tested several times a year during nuclear emergency plan exercises.

Consequences of a nuclear incident

Not all nuclear incidents result in the emission of radioactive substances into the environment. The incident may be limited to the installation. In the event of increased emissions into the environment, airborne emissions give rise to main short-term concerns because radioactive substances can spread quickly this way.

A passing radioactive cloud will expose people to radiation. Furthermore, radioactive particles will be inhaled and result in internal contamination.

Particles can also be deposited on clothes, skin, buildings and soil. Even when the cloud has passed, humans and animals will continue to be exposed to radiation. The situation will also result in long term soil contamination, which can lead to contaminated foods such as vegetables, but also milk and meat if animals feed on contaminated land or contaminated feed. In particular, rainfall can cause  significant soil and food contamination at very large distances from the incident.

Exposure to radiation can have an adverse effect on health. Only high doses have an immediate effect. Lower radiation doses are associated with an increased risk of cancer in the long term.

How should we protect ourselves

If the population is at risk of radiation exposure the following measures can be taken at short notice:
  • Taking shelter: staying indoors whilst the radioactive cloud passes provides excellent protection from radiation. Keeping windows and doors closed also reduces the risk of radioactive substance inhalation.
  • Evacuation: this is useful prior to the start of any emission. The area could also be evacuated subsequently, for example in the event of excessive soil contamination.
  • Taking iodine tablets: exposure to radioactive iodine is a significant cause of thyroid cancer. To prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine, the thyroid can be saturated with non-radioactive iodine beforehand. This measure is particularly effective if the tablets are taken just prior to exposure to radioactive iodine. These tablets should never be taken on your own initiative. They should only be taken upon specific instruction from the government.
  • Food measures: measures to prevent food contamination are possible, for example, by preventing cattle from grazing in contaminated fields. Furthermore, European guidelines define acceptable contamination levels in agricultural products following a nuclear incident. Eating vegetables from your own garden is not recommended.