Thematic Safety Areas: Emergency Preparedness & Response

Ready and able

A bomb explodes in Jakarta’s busy downtown and panic erupts. As firefighters, medical personnel and forensic investigators arrive on the scene and set to work, police receive an anonymous call indicating the bomb contains radioactive material. Word spreads quickly amongst emergency personnel: they shift into a response mode that focuses on minimizing additional exposure to victims and responders — without inciting further panic. Timing is critical and additional expertise is needed to answer the most pressing question: exactly what radioactive material has been dispersed? Police establish contact with Indonesia’s radiation protection regulatory authority.

Reality is that Jakarta has seen more than its share of bomb attacks in recent years. Fortunately, the above scenario describes a demonstration exercise carried out to test Indonesia’s newly devised strategy for responding to radiological emergency situations. The exercise took place just three weeks after an intensive training programme delivered by the IAEA, which was based on the draft publication: The First Responders Manual.
In the IAEA’s early days, emergency preparedness focused primarily on large facilities, particularly nuclear power plants. To improve preparedness, Member States were encouraged to develop accident classification systems based on plant conditions as well as national procedures for environmental monitoring. On the response side, the focus was on establishing procedures for research reactor emergencies, including the need for effective communication with neighboring countries and countries with bi-lateral agreements.

Without diminishing the seriousness of such situations, certain characteristics make them more manageable. In the event of an incident, on-site personnel would swing into action, already armed with specific knowledge of the type and quantity of radiation they were up against. Moreover, employees would be highly educated regarding risks and well trained on what to do in such a situation.

Today, things are different: emergency preparedness means being ready to react to a broad range of situations that can occur any time, anywhere. Widespread use of nuclear technologies in applications as diverse as industry, medicine, and agriculture, means that smaller amounts of radioactive material are found on more sites — sites that are more susceptible to external impacts such as flooding, fire, or accidents caused by human error. In recent years, there is increased concern about the emergencies arising from malicious use of radioactive material or ‘dirty bombs’.

Experience shows that even relatively minor radiological emergencies can have severe economic and psychological impacts, both nationally and internationally. A national emergency preparedness plan, executed by a skilful national coordinator, can help to ensure that any situation will be handled in a consistent manner.

If an emergency occurs in a known location, the coordinator’s inventory of sources can provide immediate information on the radioactive material involved and how to deal with it quickly and effectively. A typical plan outlines tasks (in priority order) and persons responsible for executing them, identifies stakeholders and specifies what each needs to know, and lists where to find additional resources, if required.

A national strategy packs even more punch when it is based on the IAEA’s Basic Safety Standards and the Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency (GS-R-2). International harmonization of standards facilitates regional cooperation, enhances regional safety and security, allows for sharing of resources (which are often limited) and provides opportunity for exchange of experience, particularly amongst countries that share similar backgrounds.

However, a recent self-assessment carried out by Member States revealed that many feel they do not have the basic capabilities to respond to a radiological emergency, particularly in respect to managing the medical response. Specifically, competencies are lacking in key areas such as monitoring, decision-making, and the establishment of the emergency preparedness and response infrastructure.

The results of the self-assessment prompted the IAEA to scale back its expectations in this area somewhat. Developing full response capabilities can take years; thus, the IAEA set a more realistic goal of establishing minimum preparedness within a one-year time frame. It defines minimum preparedness in terms of having the following capacities:

Lack of experience is one of the biggest challenges in executing an adequate response to radiological emergencies. Because such situations are rare, first responders and the local and national officials that support them are often facing a crisis of this magnitude for the very first time. Exercises such as the one carried out in Jakarta provide a vitally important learning opportunity.