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An official emergency exercise caused chaos on a south coast isle because residents believed they were under nuclear attack.
Terrified householders barricaded themselves indoors and made frantic phone calls to emergency services after "alarmist" booklets were put through their letter boxes. The leaflets told people on the Isle of Portland in Dorset to shut their doors and douse any fires. Other instructions advised residents to not leave the area, take potassium iodate tablets and follow any instructions given.
Officials from the local water company made things worse by making loud hailer announcements saying the water was being cut off.
Speculation spread across the rocky outcrop that there was a radiation leak possibly from a nuclear submarine in the harbour.
Fear of a nuclear attack mushroomed during the exercise and residents have accused organisers of the "Nuclear Accident Emergency Plan" exercise of "scare-mongering".
The exercise, led by Dorset County Council, the Royal Navy, Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the borough council involved a leaflet drop to 1,200 residents living within 1.5km of Portland Port.
Local John Morris said: "I went outside when I heard the loud hailer announcement. I was handed this leaflet about nuclear leaks by a bloke who said nothing and there were several people talking on radios. It looked serious and it's no wonder people panicked. The organisers dealt with this in an utterly incompetent manner."
Vivien Hawkins, 78, said: "It was frightening. I heard this awful noise, opened my front door but couldn't understand what they were saying.After that a booklet came telling me to shut all the windows and douse fires. It was frightening, did they want me to freeze? I called my son who works at Winfrith, and he wondered if a submarine was leaking in Portland Port."
One elderly man said: "I came home from work and found my wife in tears, she's distraught. I've had to give my wife a sleeping tablet to help with the shock. They've given us a whole list of things to do if an emergency happened, like do not leave the area and put out or damp down fires. My wife's reading all this stuff and she's scared. She's going to have nightmares."
Louise Armstrong, 45, said: "It was very strange, there was no prior warning. It would've been nice to have a letter before these leaflets."
Ashley Reed, 42, said: "The impact of these leaflets coming through our letter boxes is the real crux of the anxiety generated. The first impression when you pick it up is this is because of a radiation leak and these were delivered at night and after dark. It's not what you expect and it's just the sheer absurdity of it - as if these alarmist booklets could bring any comfort."
Another resident added: "When I got the leaflet I thought ?When?s the bomb going to drop??"
Geoff Buckley, 73, a former senior commissioner engineer with Vickers, said: "If people don't know what's going on it scares them. Instead of using pamphlets, they should spend a bit of time going around to visit people."
The exercise was a pre-cursor to a much larger exercise on Tuesday, April 27, to validate the Portland Port off-site reactor emergency plan and the site-specific aspects of the Royal Navy's emergency plan. The exercises are a statutory obligation because there is a chance nuclear submarines could berth in Portland Harbour. Similar exercises have been carried out in the past and warning was given to residents through the local media.
The booklet given out clearly stated "Information in the event of a radiation emergency in Portland Port." It told people to keep the booklet in a safe place.
A senior emergency management officer at Dorset County Council said the leaflet drop was an "update" of a similar exercise three years ago.
Donna George said: "There are clearly some other questions thrown up on this occasion that weren?t thrown up three years ago. The public information booklets were produced for the first time three years ago and that was obviously part of us warning and informing members of the public in the area what to do in the unlikely event an incident should occur. It's part of our statutory requirements."