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The role of science advice in planning and responding to a major UK emergency


The role of GO Science is to ensure that the Government is making effective use of science and engineering advice when planning and responding for a UK emergency. There are a range of natural hazards and terrorist threats which GO Science supports the cross-departmental planning. The National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies - January 2012 edition has been published to update the public on the Government’s current assessment of the likelihood and potential impact of a range of different civil emergency risks (including naturally and accidently occurring hazards and malicious threats) that may directly affect the UK. It also provides information on how the UK and emergency services prepare for these emergencies.

Responding to an emergency: the Scientific Advice Group for Emergencies (SAGE)

The UK Central Government Response: Concept of Operations (Conops) guidance also sets out the guiding principles and a framework for emergency management. Wherever possible, preparations, planning, response and recovery are local-led drawing on local expertise and knowledge. But the scale, complexity and/or severity of some emergencies mean that these local resources are overwhelmed and assistance is needed from Government. If an emergency impacts on multiple sectors, as is often the case, collaboration between Government departments is required. This function is fulfilled y the Cabinet Office Briefing Room(COBR) which facilitates collaboration and aims to ensure an effective, efficient response.

One of COBR’s key functions is to ensure that there is a common understanding of the evolving situation and that there is a sufficient evidence base for decision making. For many emergencies this will involve the provision of scientific and technical advice. For such occasions the Lead Government Department or the Cabinet Office, in consultation with GO-Science, may activate a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which aims to provide timely and coordinated scientific advice by bringing together key experts.

A SAGE has been activated three times since 2009

  • In 2009 there 22 SAGE meetings held to provide scientific advice on the 2009 H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic between May 2009 and January 2010. Copies of the minutes from these meetings can be found on the Department for Health web site.
  • In 2010, SAGE was activated for the Volcanic Ash emergency.
  • In 2011, SAGE was activated for the Fukuhshima nuclear emergency.

Volcanic Ash emergency, April 2010

GO-Science played a key role in the Government response to the disruption caused by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. This involved activating and supporting the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), chaired by Sir John Beddington. The membership consisted of leading geologists, meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, and statisticians from the UK and Iceland, as well as key officials from across Government. SAGE met four times during this time (the minutes are available via the links on this web page). We have also been working closely with science providers (such as the Met Office and the British Geological Survey), the airline industries and regulators to understand and mitigate the impact of future eruptions.

The threat to the UK from Icelandic and other volcanoes remains and we continue to work with partners, nationally and internationally, to develop ways to better understand and respond to these types of events in the future.

Japan nuclear incident, 2011

On Friday 11 March 2011 a magnitude 9 earthquake hit the east coast of central Japan (Honshu island). It was the fifth largest earthquake in the last 100 years and the largest that has ever hit Japan since records began. That earthquake and associated tsunami led to a power failure at the Fukushima nuclear plant. That power failure led to a loss of cooling on the plant and that in turn led to a number of hydrogen explosions. Concerns regarding the release of radioactive material and the safety of British Nationals led to the Prime Minister seeking advice from Sir John Beddington.

Sir John convened the Scientific Advice Group in Emergencies (SAGE) to advise on the nuclear incident in Japan. This SAGE group was made up of experts from within Government and external experts from the National Nuclear Laboratory, Industry and Academia.

SAGE came to a unanimous view, in mid March that given the fuel held at Fukushima there was no need for UK nationals to evacuate areas outside the exclusion zone recommended by the Japanese Government. This advice was felt to be appropriate even in a reasonable worst case scenario. Modeling results indicated that outside the exclusion zone, even in this worst case, the risk to human health could be managed by precautionary measures, such as staying indoors to avoid exposure, iodine tablets would also be helpful, notably for infants and pregnant women. The Government put in place precautionary advice to leave an area within 80 km of the plant on 17 March and SAGE were content at this additional level of precaution.

SAGE continued to meet to review the situation at the plant and to provide information on food and water contamination as well as that of freight. Full details can be found in the SAGE minutes (available from the link on this page). The situation at the plant is now more stable, but we continue to monitor the situation regularly. It should be recognised that it may be many years before the plant can be safely decommissioned.

Teleconferences by Sir John Beddington during the Japan Nuclear Incident in 2011

Early on in the emergency it was clear that many UK nationals in Japan were understandably very worried about the situation – particularly as it was difficult to get clear information in Japan on what was happening. Consequently, Sir John Beddington held several teleconferences with UK nationals in Japan (the teleconferences were hosted by the UK embassy in Tokyo). Sir John was supported by officials from the Office for Nuclear Regulation, the Health Protection Agency and the Department for Health.

During the teleconferences, Sir John was able to outline SAGE’s overall assessment in terms of the reasonable worst case, and their view on the actual situation at the plant. UK nationals were able to ask Sir John, or the other experts, questions on specific areas that were of concern to them. The transcript of this telecon was placed on the embassy web site.

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