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Basic knowledge on emergency preparedness

The term "nuclear emergency preparedness" covers all measures that prevent or contain the spread of radioactive substances after a nuclear or radiological accident. The aim of the measures is to protect man and the environment from the harmful effects of ionising radiation.

The task of emergency preparedness is fulfilled on the one hand by the preventive planning of the operators of nuclear installations or facilities. On the other hand, the competent authorities at regional, Land and federal level plan measures to protect the population outside the installations or facilities. This part of emergency preparedness is referred to as off-site emergency protection.

Off-site emergency protection

Off-site emergency protection includes both disaster control measures for immediate hazard prevention and measures aimed at longer-term protection against health risks. 
Disaster control measures

Early protective measures of disaster control include:

  • call to shelter: this is to prevent the absorption of released radioactive substances from the air. Since the walls of a building shield ionising radiation, this also reduces the direct exposure to radiation. According to the Emergency Dose Value Ordinance, this measure is considered appropriate if an effective dose of ten millisieverts could be expected for a person staying outdoors for more than seven days without protective measures.  A call to shelter can also be considered if the time until an expected release of radioactive substances into the environment is not sufficient to evacuate a specific area.
  • evacuation of particularly affected areas: this measure is considered if an effective dose of more than 100 millisieverts could be expected when staying outdoors for seven days without any protective measures.
  • iodine thyroid blocking: this refers to the distribution and recommended intake of special iodine tablets. The tablets are intended to prevent radioactive iodine released during the accident from accumulating in the thyroid gland. Iodine thyroid blocking is recommended for people up to 45 years of age if certain values for the so-called organ dose of the thyroid gland are expected. It is important for the effectiveness of iodine thyroid blocking that the tablets are only taken when recommended by the competent authorities. This is to ensure that the saturation of the thyroid gland with non-radioactive iodine is at a maximum when the radioactive cloud passes over the corresponding area. 

Disaster control measures are pre-planned around each nuclear installation. In the event of an emergency, good planning facilitates the smooth execution of measures. 
The classification of the planning zones and the corresponding measures are as follows:

  • Central zone > up to 5 kilometres around the respective installation: for this zone, evacuations, the call to shelter and iodine thyroid blocking are pre-planned. Both an evacuation and a distribution of iodine tablets should be able to be completed in this zone within six hours of the alert.
  • Intermediate zone > between 5 and 20 kilometres around the respective installation: the planning essentially corresponds to that for the central zone. However, it must be possible to complete an evacuation after 24 hours at the latest, and a distribution of iodine tablets after 12 hours at the latest after the alert.
  • Outer zone ranges from 20 to 100 kilometres around the respective installation: the planning for this area is to ensure continuous monitoring of the radiological situation. In concrete terms, this means that above all the radioactivity in the environment is continuously monitored and the resulting radiation exposure for the people located there is determined. Arrangements are also being made for the distribution of iodine tablets and calls to shelter.
  • Entire Federal Republic: iodine tablets for children, adolescents and pregnant women are stocked at central locations throughout the Federal Republic so that they can be distributed promptly.

What other protective measures are there?

Furthermore, there are measures that concern the handling of contaminated products, objects, surfaces or materials and aim to ensure that radioactive substances released into the environment are kept away from humans. Measurements of radioactivity in the air, soil, foodstuffs, drinking water and waste play an important role in this. The results of these measurements form the basis for excluding foodstuffs from contaminated areas from sale, for banning the use of land for agriculture or for providing special protective measures for workers.

Who is in charge of what?

The competences in Germany are defined by the Basic Law. Certain competences fall directly to the Federal Government, some federal tasks are taken over by the Länder on behalf of the Federal Government, and still other competences are the responsibility of the Länder. At Land level, some of these competences are transferred to other administrative levels.

General hazard prevention is usually the responsibility of local authorities, such as the police or the fire brigade. For events with special hazards, which include ionising radiation, these local authorities are supported by specialist authorities.

Since a nuclear accident is assumed to be a major catastrophic event requiring a high degree of coordination, the disaster control authorities are responsible for hazard prevention in this case. The disaster control authorities are allowed to act on a large scale and thus also make the decision on the above-mentioned disaster control measures that strongly interfere with the lives of the population. It is their responsibility to inform the population and give appropriate behavioural recommendations.

At federal level, responsibility for protection against ionising radiation lies in the portfolio of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV). The Federal Ministry for the Environment is therefore empowered, among other things, to define radiological criteria for various measures to which the authority responsible for hazard prevention is bound. The ministry itself is also responsible for informing the public, for behavioural recommendations and for the exchange of information with other countries. The Federal Ministry for the Environment or a Land authority acting on behalf of the Federation assesses the nuclear or radiological hazard situation and informs the authorities responsible for hazard prevention accordingly.

The defined dose or contamination levels are considered radiological criteria for the appropriateness of a protective measure or as criteria for the existence of a hazard. The respective competent authority (e.g. the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture for the food sector) then ensures the implementation of appropriate measures. 

Federal Radiological Situation Centre

The Federal Radiological Situation Centre (RLZ) is a situation centre established by the Federal Ministry for the Environment. It supports the federal government and the Länder in their work. Under the direction of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection and GRS evaluate all available information on the event and prepare forecasts on the further course of events and the possible radiological consequences. In performing its tasks, the Radiological Situation Centre is also supported by the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance and the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management.