Disaster plan urgently needed

MIRACULOUSLY, no one was injured when barrels of concentrated sulphuric acid yesterday fell off the back of a lorry near the heart of Ireland’s chemical complex and just after the morning rush hour.

Thankfully, the emergency plan, involving gardaí, fire fighters and environmental officials, swung into action and traffic was diverted from the busy Ringaskiddy road close to the dormitory town of Carrigaline.

In terms of global disasters, it was a relatively insignificant moment.

But hours before today's 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, it was a timely reminder of how easy it is for potentially lethal accidents to occur.

As luck had it, conditions were sunny and dry when the 40-gallon drums jettisoned off the transporter, allegedly swerving to avoid a car, and two of them burst open, spilling liquid acid onto the tarmac. On a rainy day, the dangerous chemical would have washed into the water table.

The Health and Safety Authority is conducting a thorough investigation into how the incident happened. A vital issue to be determined is whether the hazardous cargo was properly secured.

Regrettably, chemical spills and even fatal explosions are no strangers to people living on the rim of Cork Harbour where the latest event was seen as "an accident waiting to happen".

On a broader canvas, the lack of training and the ill-equipped status of the country's firefighters to cope with a major nuclear disaster has long been a matter of deep concern.

Ever since the Stardust disaster, in which 48 young people lost their lives 25 years ago, leaders of the fire service have been clamouring for better resources.

But, as the National Firefighters Committee has highlighted, Ireland does not have a single instant response unit capable of dealing with mass contamination, whereas Britain has 80.

If there was an accident at Sellafield, where a vast quantity of high-level radioactive waste is stored, the benighted people of Ireland would just have to swallow the famous iodine tablets dispatched by Deputy Joe Jacob which, by now, are far past their sell-by date.

In line with that kind of muddled thinking, it beggars belief that no exercise has ever been carried out in the middle of a major urban centre in this country in order to assess the readiness or otherwise of the emergency services to deal with a major nuclear accident.

Given Sellafield's long litany of incidents, the prospect of such an event cannot be ruled out. If, for instance, terrorists were to succeed in dive-bombing an airline jet into the atomic installation, the lives of tens of thousands of people on Ireland's east coast could be in jeopardy.

Inevitably, the prevailing wind would blow a radioactive cloud towards our shores.

Apparently, plans to have a decontamination system round the clock in Dublin have been on the drawing board but are not yet implemented.

It is time the Government and its various agencies got their act together.

There is an urgent need to give the emergency services the resources they need for the task and also to prepare the man and woman in the street for a doomsday scenario.

By coincidence, an air disaster was simulated at Shannon yesterday to see how the local emergency services would respond.

However, the realism of that exercise must be in doubt since the ambulances and fire brigades were neatly parked yards from the crash scene waiting for it to happen an unlikely scenario in the real world.

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