Britain is unprepared for prolonged blackouts, which consequently could trigger riots and cause the dead to be left unburied, according to a secret Government security assessment. It is also likely that the transport networks would be in chaos which may affect the ability of emergency services to reach those in need, leading to unnecessary deaths, the report found.
The assessment report, codenamed Exercise Hopkinson, imagined a scenario in which the South West of England was hit by a large storm in April 2015, knocking out power to two million homes in Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset and parts of Wiltshire for up to two weeks. Damage to overhead lines would also spell localised power cuts to around 5 percent of homes across the rest of the nation, although urban areas, where cables are laid underground, would be largely untouched.
In playing through the scenario, the officials undertaking the assessment found that the UK’s contingency plans in such an event are based on a number of flawed or untested assumptions. The findings are “genuinely worrying”, an industry source has told the Telegraph, who gained access to the secret report. “The short synopsis is: we’re unprepared,” they said. “If they ran this every year you wouldn’t expect them so have identified so many gaps in their knowledge and preparation.
“It seems like a lot of emergency planning is based on articles of faith. These are incredibly unlikely scenarios but you want to trust the unseen hand of the state to sort things out if the worst does happen. It looks as though the manifestations of the state aren’t sure how they would respond.”
The assessment took place this summer after 12 months of preparation, and involved members from all government departments. A Department of Energy and Climate Change presentation on the assessment found that “false assumptions & new considerations” were identified by all departments.
The report itself states that the assessment, which was designed to ensure that current plans were “fit for purpose” instead “exposed the fact that, where contingency plans against power disruption exist, some of those plans are based on assumption rather than established fact.”
It concluded: “Populations are far less resilient now than they once were. There is likely to be a very rapid descent into public disorder unless Government can maintain [the] perception of security.”
The list of negative consequences is comprehensive. The scenario assumes that Hinkley Point nuclear power station is the only plant running at the time of the storm, but that it trips off the supply and shuts down safely. But its ongoing safety would be predicated on backup generators and refulling within 72 hours.
However, the availability of fuel supplies has been brought into question by the assessment, which found that the supplies, which would be “ever more vital in the absence of power, to run generators and emergency response vehicles,” may not be available as petrol station and some fuel bunkers themselves rely on electric pumps. “The ‘simple’ solution of using generators is far more difficult to establish in reality,” warns the report.
Likewise, it is not known how long hospital generators can last in the event of a prolonged power outage. There would be “increased mortality rates,” putting “pressure on the practicalities of movement, storage and disposal of the deceased”. And, the report notes, “aside from the environmental health problems there is the cultural and social issue of ensuring dignity in death.”
Mobile phone coverage would be lost within two hours, and most landlines nowadays depend on a power source to work. Fire and rescue services would be inundated by calls from automatic alarm systems. And congestion would be a problem as people attempted to vacate the area, further compounded by the failure of traffic light systems and street lights. Furthermore, “signals failure on the rail network will shut down all movement in the region.”
Law and order would quickly break down. The report notes that there is a “genuine risk that high risk offenders in the community would be able to disappear,” as electronic tags would cease to work as soon as the mobile phone network went down. Isolated rural prisons would face staffing shortages, and may start to run out of water within a few days, making it necessary to consider “decanting prisons in order to stem likely rising disorder.” And a lack of food supplies could spark panic buying and hoarding, bringing into question current assumptions over food supply.
Agriculture would take a big hit, particularly dairy farms which would see their milk collections fail, causing them to dispose of the milk by spreading it over farmland, an action which would trigger an “environmental emergency”. Some types of sewage works would also shut down after six hours, causing sewage to be dumped in water courses, again with potentially catastrophic environmental impacts.
And “significant metal theft from ‘dead’ circuits” would hamper efforts to restore power to the region, unless the military or police force were able to patrol the lines to ensure their safety.
A spokesman for the DECC said: “The Government routinely carries out exercises like this to test response capabilities and ensure we are as prepared as possible for any very high impact emergency situation. The scenario tested here was and continues to be, unlikely to happen, but it is important we do these exercises and learn from them.”