Office for Nuclear Regulation

Emergency preparedness and response (EP&R)


ONR regulates emergency preparedness and response at and around civil and defence nuclear premises across Great Britain.

ONR regulates to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place in the highly unlikely event of a radiation emergency.

Great Britain has not experienced a nuclear accident with off-site consequences since the Windscale Fire in 1957. This event was instrumental in the Government setting up the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, a predecessor organisation of ONR, to provide independent regulatory oversight of the industry.

We work in partnership with organisations and agencies involved in emergency response arrangements including operators of nuclear installations, local authorities, government departments and other stakeholders.

We also contribute to a significant programme of international coordination and development of nuclear regulation to influence high standards of safety and security.

In addition to our EP&R work involving the nuclear industry, ONR also regulates transport operations where these involve civil transport of radioactive material by road, rail and inland waterway in Great Britain. There are various legal obligations associated with radiation emergencies that could arise during transport, including at transit premises used in connection with the storage and handling of radioactive material.

Local emergency arrangements

GB law places a legal duty on the relevant local authority to produce plans to deal with off-site emergencies at nuclear sites, working with the site operator and other agencies including ONR. This requirement is captured in the Radiation (Emergency Preparedness and Public Information) Regulations 2019 (REPPIR). ONR formally assesses the adequacy of these arrangements which must include a test of the off-site emergency plans every three years. 

Should a radiation emergency be declared, the local authority will activate its off-site emergency plan to protect the public within a pre-determined area known as the Detailed Emergency Planning Zone (DEPZ). These local arrangements are well established and publicised to any residents within the DEPZ.  REPPIR19 also requires Outline Planning Zones (OPZs) for some sites which require strategic level planning beyond the DEPZ for extremely unlikely but more severe events.

National emergency arrangements

In the unlikely event of a radiation emergency there would be four levels working together to deliver an effective response:

ONR’s role in a radiation emergency

ONR is required to communicate with other emergency responders in the event of a radiation emergency by providing independent advice to the relevant authorities at local and national levels. We may also have a subsequent investigatory role to determine the underlying causes of the incident, identify any breaches in legislation, prevent a recurrence and consider appropriate enforcement.

A key aspect of any off-site emergency plan is the setting up of a Strategic Co-ordination Group (SCG). The SCG would be attended by the local council, emergency services, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and a number of other relevant organisations. ONR would attend both in an advisory capacity and to facilitate information flow to regulatory colleagues at ONR headquarters and elsewhere.

At a national level, the Government’s Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) would likely be set up, supported by the Lead Government Department (for example, DESNZ or the Ministry of Defence). Within these arrangements, senior ONR representatives (usually our Chief Nuclear Inspector or a nominated deputy) would provide independent advice and guidance to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which would be advising COBR and the Lead Government Department. If the radiation emergency occurred in Scotland or Wales, ONR would also provide advice directly to the Scottish Government Resilience Room or Welsh Emergency Coordination Centre respectively.

Redgrave Court Incident Suite

To support this, ONR would set up its own incident suite (Redgrave Court Incident Suite ‘RCIS) at its headquarters in Bootle, Merseyside to monitor the activities of the operator and form an independent view. For example the RCIS was fully operational from the first day of the serious nuclear accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi in 2011, and remained so for several weeks. ONR’s emergency response arrangements are regularly tested through our involvement in tests of off-site emergency plans (referenced above). We continuously seek to improve our own arrangements through learning from these exercises.

Public communications in an emergency

In the event of a radiation emergency ONR would seek to support local and national messaging through the appropriate communication channels. At the local level, the SCG (see above) would have a key role in ensuring that advice to protect the public keeps pace with the risk posed by the radiation emergency. This local advice will be disseminated through the media, websites and social media. At a national level, media interaction would be led by the Government’s News Co-ordination Centre to ensure consistency and seek to satisfy the needs of the news agenda.

ONR also has a duty to provide prior information to members of the public who may be affected by a radiation emergency when radioactive material is transported by road, rail or inland waterway in Great Britain.

Whilst we do not have formal media-facing responsibilities in relation to the incident response, we may choose to comment publicly on relevant regulatory matters as required.