Margaret Thatcher demanded the government draw up new contingency plans for a major nuclear incident after the response to the Chernobyl disaster was branded a “farce” and a “shambles”.
Classified government papers released today reveal concern in the weeks following the disaster that failings in the government’s response could give ammunition to opponents of nuclear power and snarl proposed new power stations.
Ministers had agreed to the construction of a second nuclear reactor at Sizewell in Suffolk at the time of the disaster but the decision had not been made public.
The prime minister asked officials to draw up new guidelines in the event of a nuclear disaster at home or an incident overseas that sent radioactive fallout over the UK.
Radiation from the explosion at Chernobyl on 26 April, 1986, spread across much of Europe, leading to residents in rural parts of Scotland, north Wales and north-west England briefly being advised not to drink rainwater.
An initial assessment of the government’s response to the nuclear disaster in Ukraine confirmed claims of “buck-passing” among ministers and suggested the government was guilty of “some pretty maladroit foot- work”.
In the days following news of the incident, which was initially covered up by the Soviet Union, the UK’s response was hampered by the fact that Mrs Thatcher, the foreign secretary and the prime minister’s press secretary Bernard Ingham were all in Tokyo for an international summit.
In their absence, the cabinet argued over who should take the lead, officials gave out contradictory information about the danger to people’s health in the UK and in one astonishing incident a minister gave out the telephone number for the Department of Energy driving pool in a BBC Radio interview, rather than the public information hotline.
Ten days after the disaster, Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary David Norgrove was briefed that the Cabinet Office had “asked the Department of the Environment to take over now the general role of lead department”, putting environment secretary Kenneth Baker in charge of responding for the government.
However, before the briefing was passed on to the prime minister, Mr Norgrove wrote in the margins: “Mr Baker is objecting to this”.
The following day, on 7 May, Mr Ingham wrote to Mrs Thatcher “to record that the media are making something of an alleged lack of co-ordination in government and a weaker performance by the UK government than other European governments”.
He suggested ministers should “speak up for nuclear power” and “speak confidently about the whole issue rather than just their individual bits of it, which creates an impression of buck-passing.”
On 16 May, the prime minister received a damning assessment of the government’s response from her policy adviser on energy, John Wybrew.