How to prepare for a nuclear emergency

An emergency could occur for a range of reasons including plant failure, serious operator error, fire, explosion, seismic event or malicious activity. If this is in a plant containing radioactive material and causes a leak of radioactive material it may result in the declaration of a radiation emergency. (What is a radiation emergency?).

There are a number of simple steps that you can take to prepare to respond to a radiation emergency:

  • Understand your local risks (including knowing if you live or work in a DEPZ or OPZ);
  • Read, understand and discuss the prior information you have been sent;
  • Understand how you could be affected by a local radiation emergency;
  • Understand the reasons for the Protective Actions you may be asked to take and prepare so that you are able to take them;
  • Create a family emergency plan

What are the local risks?

LRFs are required to produce a community risk register which discusses the risks relevant to their area. For example, Cheshire LRF has identified the following as the "top risks" for their area:

  • Pandemic flu
  • Flooding
  • Severe Weather
  • Loss of CNI
  • Animal Diseases
  • Environmental Incidents
  • Industrial Incidents
  • Transport Incidents
  • Terrorist Threats

The public facing document will generally identify and explain the risk and then discuss what the local authority and emergency services are doing to reduce the risks and prepare to respond should it be needed. They also explain what might happen to you if the risk occurs and how you might need to respond. Importantly these documents give you advice on how to prepare yourself and your family for these events.

It is well worth you finding your local authority's advice on which risks apply in your area, how you can prepare for them and how you should respond if they occur.

Follow this link to find your local authority plans (Government website)

Do you live in a DEPZ or an OPZ?


If you live close enough to a nuclear site in the UK you may be in a Detailed Emergency Planning Zone (DEPZ) or Outline Planning Zone (OPZ). These are areas within which the Local Authority is required to have prepared and tested emergency plans to help protect the public in the event of any nuclear emergency at the site. The ONR website lists all the Licensed Sites in the UK.

The table below has, for each licenced site, links to the ONR page for the site, the local authority's emergency planning page and maps or information on the DEPZ, OPZ, Consequence Report and Prior Information if they have been found on the internet.

Aldermaston West Berkshire District Council DEPZ,    OPZ,    Cons,    Prior,   
BAE Barrow Cumbria County Council DEPZ,    OPZ,    Cons,    Prior
Berkeley Gloucestershire County Council DEPZ n/a,    OPZ,    Cons,    Prior,   
Capenhurst Cheshire West and Chester Council DEPZ,    OPZ,    Cons,    Prior,   
Clyde Naval Base Argyle & Bute Council DEPZ,    Cons,    OS Plan,    Prior,    Prior,   
Devonport Plymouth City Council Depz,    OPZ,    ,OPZ,    Cons,    C2,    OS Plan,    Prior,   
Dounreay Highland Council OPZ,    OS Plan,    Prior,   
Dungeness B Kent County Council Prior
Hartlepool Hartlepool Borough Council DEPZ OPZ,    Cons,    Prior,   
Hinkley Point B Somerset County Council Cons
Heysham 1 & 2 Lancashire County Council DEPZ,    Cons,    Prior,   
Hunterston B North Ayrshire Council OPZ Cons OS Plan
Navy Operational Berths Various DEPZ 1.5 km Cons (Example)
Rolls Royce Submarines Derbyshire prepared Cons,    Prior,   
Sellafield Cumbria County Council DEPZ,    OPZ,    Cons,    Prior,   
Sizewell B Suffolk resilience DEPZ,    Cons,    OS Plan,    Prior,   
Springfields Lancashire County Council DEPZ,    ,    OPZ,    Cons,    Prior,   
Torness East Lothian Council Cons,    OS Plan,    Prior,   
Trawsfynydd Gwynedd Council n/a,    OPZ
Vulcan The Highland Council DEPZ,    OS Plan,    Prior,   
notes: (1) Not all sites publish their off-site plan on the internet.

How could you be affected by a radiation accident?

There are different types of licensed sites around the UK. These include sites where nuclear fuel is prepared, the reactor sites which generate electricity, sites that are visited by mobile nuclear reactors, and the sites that help process and store used nuclear fuels. These different types of sites have very different risk profiles and a range of hazards.

The concern is that an accident, plant failure, operator error, storm or flood, earthquake1 or deliberate action could allow radioactive material to escape from the site either as an airborne release or a water borne release and that, as a result of this members of the public could be exposed to additional radiation doses. If you are near a radioactive source whether it is a solid source, a liquid, gas or dust, you will be exposed to radiation. The stronger the source, the nearer you are to it and the longer you stay near it the higher your radiation dose will be. The human body can tolerate low doses of radiation and does so year after year (see Background radiation) but higher doses bring health concerns. The art of preparing for a radiation emergency is to understand how you may be exposed, what level of dose might lead to harm and how you can reduce your dose and the dose to your family and friends.

Note 1 - Key buildings in nuclear sites are "seismically qualified", designed and built to survive all but the most extreme earthquake considered likely in the area.

It is also recognised that you don't need to live near a nuclear site to be affected by a radiation accident. Radiation accidents are also possible during the transport of radioactive material, the crashing of a nuclear powered satellite or from terrorist events. For ONR material on transport emergencies see their web-site (Transporting radioactive material).

Dispersion of airborne activity

If radioactive material (dust or gas) was to be released from a nuclear plant to the air it would be expected to disperse on the wind. It might be expected to move downwind, spreading out as it goes and some of it may fall to the ground and deposit on it or other surfaces such as roofs, walls and trees. If it rains the rain may "wash out" some of the radioactive gases and dusts leading to more activity on the ground and less remaining in the air. The details of the dispersion depends on the chemical and physical properties of the release, the weather conditions at the time of release and the topology of the ground over which the plume passes. There are many computer models that try to estimate how a release will move through the atmosphere and where it will settle Wikipedia, Atmospheric dispersion modelling.

A simple but effective model of atmospheric dispersion, called the R91 model after the first in a series of papers describing it (NRPB-R91) is widely used but is slowly being replaced by more complex models such as the NAME model used by the UK Met. Office and others (NAME).

There are a number of ways in which members of the public can receive an additional radiation dose from being downwind of an atmospheric release of radioactive material. These different routes are sometimes called Pathways.

Often the most important pathway, in terms of additional dose, is Inhalation dose which involves breathing in the radioactive material and it initially lodging in the lungs. What happens next depends on the chemical and physical nature of the radioactivity. It can be removed from the body by various mechanisms, remain lodged in the lungs or be transported to elsewhere in the body.

Usually of secondary importance is Cloud shine which is the radiation dose received from being close to or immersed in the cloud of radioactive dust or gases as they drift by on the wind.

Ground gamma dose is the dose received by being near surfaces that are contaminated by radioactive materials settling out of the cloud as it goes by. Ground gamma dose, unlike inhalation dose and cloud dose continues to feature after the plume has passed.

Ingestion dose results from consuming food or drink that has been contaminated with radioactivity. This can be radioactivity that settles on the food in the field, allotment or garden, or on the way from the producer to the consumer or it can be food incorporated into the growing crop or animal by root or foliar uptake (for crops) and by ingestion or inhalation (for animal products).

Dispersion of radioactivity in water

The hydrosphere can be a major exposure pathway by which radioactive materials that are routinely discharged under authorization or are accidentally released from a nuclear power plant could be dispersed to the environment and transported to locations where water is used by or for the population in the region of the site.

As for atmospheric dispersion there are a number of computer models that attempt to predict how radioactive material discharge into water (local streams, rivers, lakes, seas) move with the currents, spread out, mix with the suspended solids in the water and with the sea/river/lake bed and are taken up by fish and other sea animals and by sea weed and other flora (PC-Cream).

Members of the public can be exposed to additional radiation dose by eating food sourced from contaminated waters (ingestion dose), by consumption of the water, either deliberately or accidentally (ingestion dose), by exposure to radioactivity on shores (external radiation).

What you are asked to do

You are generally asked to Shelter. This means go indoors (ideally in a robust building that is reasonably airtight), stay indoors and listen to the local radio or monitor the site's or local authority's social media feeds for information. (Learn more about Shelter as a protective action).

If you are near an operating nuclear reactor you may be advised to take Stable Iodine Tablets. These reduce the dose from radioactive forms of iodine that may be released in a nuclear emergency. (Learn more about stable iodine as a protective action).

In very severe accidents, ones that might last for several days or ones that give sufficient warning time you may be asked to evacuate the area.

Prior Information

If you live or work in a DEPZ you should be provided with "Prior Information" under REPPIR Regulation 21 (for those living in the UK). This could be in the form of a leaflet or a calendar. The information is also usually available on the website of your local council (see "Prior" in table above) for links.

The prior information should be read carefully, understood by everyone who may be left in the house on their own and then kept in a safe place.

The information will normally tell you how you might be alerted to an emergency (This depends on the site and could include any of: messages on local radio and TV, calls to registered phones, social media messages, sirens). You should ensure that you have access to at least one of these, preferably several.

How can you prepare? - Your Family Emergency Plan

Discuss the possibilities

It is a good idea to talk through the information leaflet you receive with your family to make sure that everyone understands how they might be alerted to a Radiation Emergency and how they should respond if they are at home or outside the home at work, at school, or for any other reason.


Many operators and local authorities maintain systems that can send messages registered phones or to registered social media accounts. If you live or work near to a licensed site with an off-site plan it is worth finding out about these and registering. See the Prior Information leaflet or your local authority web site for details.

Prepare for shelter

Everyone should understand the importance of staying indoors. It provides shielding from the radiations being produced by the plume and it reduces the indoor concentration of the radioactive gases and dusts that make up the plume.

Consider what you would need if you were asked to stay at home for a few days without any notice. This could be without lighting, heating or water although these shortages are unlikely to be caused by a radiation emergency.

Consider putting a few items in a separate box. This could include:

  • Enough tinned or dried food to last at least three days
  • Bottled water – check dates and regularly replace
  • Candles and matches
  • Camping stove – this should only be used in a well ventilated room, with a carbon monoxide detector.
  • Books, board games or other simple entertainment to pass time

Do you have elderly or vulnerable neighbours who may need help or reassurance in these situations?

Prepare for Evacuation

Evacuation is not a planned automatic response at many sites in the UK, and then only for those nearest the site and in the event of a serious event. At many sites you are much more likely to be advised to evacuate for a flooding alert. It is, however, worth considering what it might entail.

The Sizewell B Prior Information gives the following check list:

  • Get together the people and pets in your household (excluding children in school)
  • Pack a supply of warm clothing
  • Pack any special food that anyone in your family needs
  • Pack any medicines that anyone in your family needs
  • Take Stable Iodine tablets with you if evacuated
  • Take personal documents and valuables
  • Pack some books and toys for children
  • Make sure all naked flames including candles and/or fires are extinguished. Makes sure that cookers, ventilation fans, TVs and other electrical appliances etc, are turned off and unplugged
  • Lock up your property
  • Leave using your own transport, keeping windows and ventilation closed. Arrangements will be made for people without their own transport
  • Go to the rest centre or any other centre designated or to a suitable destination of your choosing provided it is outside the evacuation area - but please inform the police of your location (registration cards will probably be provided)

(I'm not sure what "valuables" you would want to take to a reception centre with you rather than leave in your locked home. I'd also suggest that chargers for phones etc were packed.)

See Evacuation for more detail.

Know where your stable iodine tablets are

If you have been given a supply of stable iodine tablets (which you may have been if you live close to a nuclear reactor) it is important that they are safely stored and you can find them if you ever need them. Don't take them until advised to by the appropriate authorities and follow the instructions on the pack.

Make a family emergency communications plan

Consider the questions:

What if something happens and I'm not with my family?

  • Will I be able to contact them or their carers?
  • How will I know that they are safe?
  • How can I let them know I'm okay?

With advances in technology, such as mobile phones and the internet, these questions seem far easier to answer than they were even a few years ago. Family and Friend groups on communications apps, text messages and calls from mobile phones seem to be a complete answer. While there is no particular reason to believe that a Radiation Emergency will affect the communications hardware upon which our smart phones depend they probably should not be taken for granted. What happens if in your haste to leave where you are when you hear the alarm you leave your phone behind?

Consider a written communications plan with important numbers on it such as contact details for family members, neighbours, children's schools, places of work, service providers. Give a copy to all members of the family to keep in their purse, backpack or wallet and keep one at home.

Consider agreeing a "meeting place" to which individual family members can make their way independently for protection or to reunite should access to the family home be denied. This could be, to name a few examples, a local library, community centre, place of worship, coffee shop or friend's home.

For more on this topic, and a template for your communications plan look at Create your family Emergency Communication Plan by FEMA.

Dorset council offer a very good Home Emergency Action Plan template (other similar web sites and templates exist).

Family Disaster Kit

Having made a family communications plan you might consider going the next step and creating a Family disaster kit with those things that you might need in a power cut or the need to leave your home in a hurry. Good advice can be found on the USA Ready site (many other sites offer similar advice). A pragmatic alternative to building and maintaining a kit is to a least draw up a list of what you might need and where they can be found.


You will want to care for your pets during the emergency. It is important to note that in the event of an evacuation the local councils will do their best to help but will probably not accept responsibility for pets (being rather busy looking after their human charges). Pet owners are solely responsible for their own pets’ safety and welfare.

Stroud's pet plan is a good place to start for ideas of how to protect pets.

The reception process at welfare facilities is likely to include the opportunity to inform the response organisation of how and where your animals have been left for them to consider the animals' welfare.

Businesses and farms

There is some advice on emergency planning for farms on the Farm Advisory Service web-site .

There is a large document (a section of the Cumbria general emergency plan) on planning for Animal Welfare in Emergencies on the Cumbria County Council website

Further reading

ARE YOU READY? Gloucestershire Communities Prepared (original by Thames Valley Local Resilience Forum). A comprehensive booklet on domestic preparedness.

Emergency Planning Unit Gwynedd Council PREPARING FOR AN EMERGENCY. An alternative but similar document.

Stroud District Council, How would your Family cope in an Emergency?. A much more concise document.

For a slightly different take (From the USA):Are You Ready? An In-Depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness FEMA