If a major incident occurs at a nuclear power plant and you're nearby, you can take action to protect yourself and your loved ones. Always follow the instructions of local authorities, which may include:
- Get inside a building. Brick or concrete buildings are best. Shut all windows and doors and take shelter in the middle of the building or basement if there is one. Turn off air-circulating heating and cooling systems or switch to recirculating.
- Stay inside for 24 hours or until advised by local authorities. This will reduce your exposure to harmful radiation.
- Monitor local media for important information about how to keep you and your loved ones safe.
- Authorities may tell you to evacuate the area if you're close to the event. Do so as soon as safely possible.
Nuclear power plants have safety and security procedures in place. They're monitored closely by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). An event at a nuclear power plant could release dangerous levels of radiation over an area (called a plume). Nuclear incidents at power plants can be the result of:
- natural disaster
A major incident at a nuclear power plant may consist of a loss of safety functions in the nuclear power plant. The loss of safety functions can lead to an inability to cool the reactor, resulting in radioactive materials being released into the atmosphere.
This page explains how to keep you and your loved ones safe if a nuclear power plant incident occurs.
On this page:
- The main dangers of a nuclear power plant accident
- Get inside
- Stay inside
- If you're told to evacuate
- If you're sick or injured
- Health effects and treatment of radiation exposure
The main dangers of a nuclear power plant accident
- Radioactive materials in the plume from the nuclear power plant can settle and contaminate people who are outdoors, buildings, food, water, and livestock.
- Radioactive materials can also get inside the body if people breathe them in or eat or drink something that is contaminated.
- People exposed to radiation could experience long-term health effects such as cancer.
What happens when a plume is released?
- Depending on the event that led to the incident, there may be few visual signs of damage at or near the nuclear power plant.
- The ability to cool the reactor is compromised when the safety functions of the nuclear power plant are lost or degraded. This can lead to degradation of the reactor fuel, resulting in radionuclides being released out of the reactor vessel and potentially into the atmosphere.
- Radionuclides will bind to small particles in the air when released into the atmosphere. They'll then move with the prevailing weather conditions.
- A large proportion of radiation exposure is from inhaling particles from the radioactive plume as it passes during the early stages of a radioactive material release.
- Radioactive material will be deposited on the ground as the plume passes. Exposure to deposited material may present a long-term hazard following the incident.
If you're outside when the event occurs:
- Move towards the nearest building. Avoid sheltering in a vehicle.
- Find something to cover your mouth and nose, such as a facemask, scarf, handkerchief or other cloth.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth until you can wash yourself with soap and water. Don't use disinfectant wipes on your skin. Hand sanitiser doesn't protect against radiation.
- Before going inside, remove clothing, shoes and accessories as they may be contaminated. Removing clothing can eliminate up to 90% of radioactive contamination. Leave them outside or place in a sealed plastic bag. If the weather is too extreme to remove all clothing, remove the outer layer of clothes.
- Once inside, remove any remaining clothing and place it in a sealed plastic bag. If possible, shower and wash your skin and hair with soap and water. Be careful not to swallow any of the water as you wash.
- Clean and cover any open wounds on your body.
- Wear a mask if possible.
Staying inside is your best protection immediately after a large release of radioactive material. Shelter in place until authorities say it's safe to come out – the time you need to stay inside will depend on the plume's behaviour. Keep your pets inside.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a face mask or other material (such as a scarf or handkerchief)
- Seal the building and remain inside until advised. Shut off air-circulating heating and cooling systems. Seal doors and windows with duct tape or plastic. Close vents and fireplace dampers.
- Move to the centre of the building or basement/other underground area if possible. Stay as far away from the outer walls, doors and windows as possible. Place physical barriers between yourself and the radiation source, such as lead, earth, stacks of books or concrete. This will provide shielding from gamma radiation.
- Unseal the doors and windows when authorities advise the danger has passed. Don't leave the shelter tightly sealed for more than a few hours, as this could lead to suffocation.
- Listen to the local radio or television for official information and advice. Authorities may direct you to stay in your shelter or evacuate to a safer place away from the area.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a damp towel if you must go out.
- Only eat food in sealed containers or from your fridge or freezer. If possible, only drink bottled water. Don't consume food or liquids that were outdoors uncovered or water from open water supplies.
If you're told to evacuate
If you're outside the immediate danger zone or the initial radiation plume has passed, authorities may tell you to evacuate. Pack an emergency kit including items such as:
- phone chargers and battery packs
- torches and spare batteries
- a battery-operated or hand crank radio
- a first aid kit
- non-perishable food and bottled water
- essential medicines
- cash and credit cards
- passports and travel documents.
Bring a cage/leash, food, and medication if evacuating with a pet. Bring veterinary records if you have them, including immunisation records.
When you leave, close and lock windows and doors. Turn off air conditioning, fans and heaters. Close vents and fireplace dampers.
While on the road:
- Listen to any media available to keep informed of any changes.
- Follow the advice of local authorities for information on safe evacuation routes
- If evacuating by car, keep the windows closed and the ventilation system turned off.
If you're sick or injured
- If you're experiencing a medical emergency, call the local emergency services.
- If you're sheltering in place and it isn't an emergency, listen for instructions on how and where to get medical attention when authorities tell you it's safe to leave shelter.
- If you're at a public shelter, immediately notify staff at that facility so they can assist you.
Health effects and treatment of radiation exposure
Radiation health effects are related to the type of event, how close you are and how long you're exposed.
Iodine Thyroid Blocking agents - Potassium iodide (KI)
KI treatment protects the thyroid gland before and immediately after certain types of radiation exposure. In some circumstances, it may be given to people at risk of inhaling or ingesting radioactive iodine, such as a release during a nuclear power plant accident. Note - Iodine Thyroid Blocking agents are not a relevant countermeasure in other types of radiation emergency.
Only take KI if public health officials or a medical professional directs you to. Children and pregnant women are at the highest risk and are more likely than older adults (>40 years) to be directed to take KI. If you're directed to take KI, follow the instructions immediately. It works best when taken immediately before or within 24 hours of exposure. Never take more than instructed. Larger doses won't provide more protection and increase the risk of side effects.
KI won't protect you from exposure, only the potential health effects. Take it alongside other protective measures such as sheltering in place or evacuating.
- What to do in a radiation emergency (US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Potassium Iodide (KI) tablets (US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Guide for radiation protection in emergency exposure situations (Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency)
- Nuclear emergencies: information for the public (Government of the UK)
- Advice for the public: what to do in a nuclear emergency (Government of Germany)
- Nuclear emergencies (Government of Canada)