Britain is unprepared for prolonged blackouts, with increased death rates, rising public disorder and high-risk criminals on the loose among the likely consequences if major energy networks are seriously damaged, a secret Government security assessment has found.
The UK’s contingency plans for severe power cuts are based on numerous flawed or untested assumptions and need to be revised, according to documents obtained by the Telegraph.
The assessment, codenamed Exercise Hopkinson, examined what would happen if a severe storm knocked out crucial energy infrastructure in south west England, plunging two million homes into darkness for up to two weeks.
Transport networks would be paralysed and emergency services would struggle to cope, fuel to run backup generators may be inaccessible and the dead may not be buried, it found.
And you laughed at the preppers.
The assessment, which involved officials from all key departments and major industries, took place this summer following 12 months of preparation.
It was designed to ensure emergency power plans were “fit for purpose”.
Instead it “exposed the fact that, where contingency plans against power disruption exist, some of those plans are based on assumption rather than established fact”, according to a report of the exercise, distributed privately last month.
“Populations are far less resilient now than they once were,” it concluded. “There is likely to be a very rapid descent into public disorder unless Government can maintain [the] perception of security.”
Any central Government response to the crisis may be too slow, arriving “after the local emergency resources and critical utility contingency measures had already been consumed”. Departments needed to revise “critical facets” of their plans, it found.
“False assumptions & new considerations” were identified by all involved, a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) presentation on Exercise Hopkinson shows.
The impacts of a widespread electricity outage were now being reassessed and re-rated as “VERY HIGH”, it suggests.
One of the major problems identified by the exercise was that crucial fuel supplies, which would be “ever more vital in the absence of power, to run generators and emergency response vehicles”, may not be accessible because petrol stations and some fuel bunkers rely on electric pumps.
Isn’t green energy supposed to be better?
“The ‘simple’ solution of using generators is far more difficult to establish in reality,” the report warns.
Hinkley Point nuclear plant would trip off the system, automatically shutting down, when power went off but its ongoing safety would rely on backup generators and refuelling within 72 hours.
Although hospitals have emergency back-up power generators it was “unknown” how long they could last.
There would be “increased mortality rates” which would put “pressure on the practicalities of movement, storage and disposal of the deceased”. “Aside from the environmental health problems there is the cultural and social issue of ensuring dignity in death,” it notes.
The area left without power in the Exercise Hopkinson scenario (source: DECC)
Transport systems would be paralysed as “signals failure on the rail network will shut down all movement in the region” while street lighting and road signals will fail, compounding congestion as people try to flee the area.
Mobile phone coverage would start to drop out after two hours and most landline phones would be unusable as they require power.
There is a “genuine risk that high risk offenders in the community would be able to disappear” as electronic tagging systems stop working alongside the mobile phone signal.
Fire and rescue services may struggle to cope after being inundated with automated alarm systems.
Current business contingency plans were based on the assumption that “a critical mass of staff remain available”. Yet just one third of staff may be able or willing to make it to work in the scenario as “people will look after themselves and their families before their workplace”.
Staffing of isolated rural prisons will be a particular problem and access to water in jails could run out in less than seven days. It may be necessary to consider “decanting prisons in order to stem likely rising disorder”, the report finds.
Some types of sewage treatment works could cease to work after six hours and sewage would have to be discharged into water courses. Milk collection from dairy farms would fail, triggering an “environmental emergency” as it had to be disposed of by spreading it over farms.
Panic buying and hoarding would be triggered, casting doubt on existing assumptions over food supplies.
Supermarkets don’t have any, we copied the Japanese with Just in Time.
Efforts to restore power would be hampered by “significant metal theft from ‘dead’ circuits” unless the military or emergency services patrolled power lines, while two other power plants in the region, which were not operating at the time of the power cut, do not have “black start” capability so would not be able to start themselves backup.
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.”
An industry source told the Telegraph the findings were “genuinely worrying”. “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.”
Correspondence seen by the Telegraph suggests that a fuller exercise was intended to be carried out beyond the workshop this summer where the assessment took place, but that this element of the Exercise Hopkinson was cancelled. The DECC declined to comment.