How prepared is Hong Kong for a nuclear attack or accident? We talk to the experts

The chances of a nuclear attack on Hong Kong soil are extremely low, yet the authorities hold regular drills and there are emergency plans in place; survivalists don’t think the precautions go far enough

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 July, 2017, 6:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2017, 10:44am

The odds of Hong Kong having to deal with the horrors of a nuclear attack are probably more than a million to one. So there’s little reason to dwell on a doomsday scenario, even as tension rises in the South China Sea, North Korea continues to conduct missile tests, and acts by violent extremists chart an unpredictable path.

“At present, there’s no specific intelligence suggesting Hong Kong is targeted for any attack of this kind,” says Lawrence Li, a senior news officer at the Security Bureau, the part of government that draws up policies for the city’s uniformed services, including the Fire Services Department – responsible for emergency rescue.

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Nevertheless, a number of government departments hold regular exercises and drills to practise procedures they would need to undertake in the event of a nuclear disaster. A total of 36 exercises were carried out in 2016, and 10 in the first five months of 2017, Li says.

The initiatives date back to 1998, when 10 experts representing the Security Bureau, Hong Kong Police Force, the Fire Services Department, the Department of Health and the Hong Kong Observatory formed a think tank to discuss how the city could best protect residents in the event of a terrorist attack.

In 2003, the think tank evolved into the Standing Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Planning Group. Its exercises and training sessions are aimed at ensuring individual departments are prepared to mobilise if any such crises occur.

The Security Bureau lays out contingency plans for a host of emergencies – from a plane crash to an incident at the Daya Bay nuclear power station in China, about 50km north of the Kowloon peninsula in Hong Kong – on its website.

Potential damage to Hong Kong from a nuclear incident would range from a dent in the ground to the full-scale obliteration of the entire region. A wayward seven-kiloton bomb, for example – a device believed to exist in North Korea’s arsenal – would take out an area roughly the size of Tsing Yi Island, which is more than 10 sq km.

At the other end of the scale is the 50-megaton “Tsar Bomba” tested by the Soviet Union in 1961. Although its size makes it impractical for use in warfare, in theory it would flatten the whole of Hong Kong and send shockwaves as far as Macau and well into China, with a mushroom cloud reaching a height of nearly 60km. The Security Bureau, and all other emergency response planners, would be dust.

In the event that an errant North Korean missile did fall on Hong Kong, anyone not wiped out would need to be protected from the radioactive fallout, says Dr Leung Ling-pong, a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

“People with radiation exposure often go unrecognised,” he says. “If exposure is localised, it looks similar to a burn, but if it’s more generalised, there might be nausea, vomiting, bleeding from the gut, a drop in white blood cells leaving you prone to infection, swelling of the brain and then death. If exposure is mild, it’s possible to make a full recovery from radiation poisoning.”

Irradiation means a person is only exposed to radiation, whereas contamination involves coming into direct contact with radioactive substances and carrying it around. The former poses no risk to others, whereas the latter does.

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Radiation exposure is measured in sieverts, millisieverts (one thousandth of a sievert) and microsieverts (one millionth of a sievert). According to data compiled by researchers from Information Is Beautiful – a UK-based team with a mission to “distil the world’s data, information and knowledge into ... useful diagrams” – passing through an airport scanner or eating a banana delivers 0.1 microsieverts, while a mammogram would expose a woman to 4,000 microsieverts.

A severe dose, causing hair loss and bleeding, would lead to death within about a month if untreated. A fatal dose, causing seizures and death within two days, would fall in the range of 30 sieverts.

If still functioning in the wake of a disaster, the Fire Services Department would carry out crucial decontamination procedures. The department has a frontline hazmat (hazardous materials) group to deal with contamination incidents, while officers at all fire stations, the airport, and sea ports, have also been trained in hazmat capabilities.

Among its resources are mass decontamination and hazmat pods – specialist vehicles equipped with detection, protection and decontamination gear, stored for use by four sub-teams based at the Sheung Wan, Tsim Sha Tsui, Sha Tin and Lai King fire stations.

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“In case of hazmat incidents such as leakage of unknown gas and spillage of chemicals … non-commissioned officers who have received hazmat training will be deployed,” department spokesman Caleb Lin Ka-tsun says. “If the incident commander assesses that such incident may not be effectively dealt with by the resources of the initial attendance, he will request the attendance of the hazmat sub-team in which hazmat pod and mass decontamination pod will be included.”

The highly trained firefighters would then swoop in to set up decontamination tents, each with space for 30 shower heads, to hose down victims, who may be suffering radiation burns.

The tent is designed to decontaminate five male and five female victims simultaneously. “With a decontamination time of two minutes for each victim, a total of 330 victims can be decontaminated within an hour,” according to the department. These units would be set up in “priority locations”, such as evacuation points across the city, including ports, airports, and the border with China.

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The basic sustenance needs of survivors would be the responsibility of the Centre for Food Safety, part of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, which would be tasked with ensuring that radiation levels in food did not exceed safe levels.

However, the department does not specify how food would be obtained and distributed if supply chains were disrupted and locally produced food became contaminated.

The government has no plan in place against nuclear attacks … it doesn’t have sufficient reserve supplies. There is a lot of room for improvement
King Wong

A misfiring North Korean warhead was not on the government’s radar when the think tank was formed in 1998. Other possible sources of radiation being considered were radioactive dispersal devices, or “dirty” bombs, which combine explosives with radioactive material.

Dirty bombs are described as weapons of disruption, rather than destruction, and work on a smaller scale than a conventional nuclear bomb. They may be used by terrorist organisations to spread fear or destabilise a society.

Another possible source of contamination is the Daya Bay nuclear power plant northeast of Hong Kong, in Shenzhen’s Longgang district. A million Hongkongers signed a petition opposing construction of the plant in 1985, a year before the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.

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Despite opposition the plant went into operation eight years later. Although the risk is considered minimal, the Hong Kong government has a plan of action in case something does go wrong. Should there be an accident, the government advises residents to seal windows, doors and air vents to shield against a radiation plume, and even take thyroid blocking pills (stockpiled by the government) to reduce the risk of contracting thyroid cancer, which is closely linked to radiation exposure.

However, for the city’s survivalist community – whose members keenly research disaster plans and survival techniques – the government’s proposed protection measures don’t go far enough.

“I have no confidence,” says the Hong Kong Survival Association’s King Wong, when asked whether the city is equipped to deal with a nuclear-level disaster. “Such plans are too simple. The government has no plan in place against nuclear attacks … it doesn’t have sufficient reserve supplies. There is a lot of room for improvement.”

The group’s members get together to discuss their own ideas for survival plans. They share ideas on Facebook and WhatsApp and in online forums, and hold tutorials that deal with techniques ranging from shooting skills and martial arts, to first-aid courses and wilderness survival.

If a nuke hit Hong Kong, Wong says, he and his fellow survivalists would try to hide somewhere underground, such as a basement, or in thick-walled concrete buildings after the initial blast and fallout, then try to flee the city by any means possible. A nuclear bombing is just one of the doomsday scenarios the group prepares for. Others range from viral epidemics to solar storms.

All risks assessed, the fear of nuclear attack plays less on Wong’s mind than an outbreak of disease. “The city’s high population density makes it a breeding ground for bacteria,” he says, adding that his advice would be to “store face masks and disinfection supplies” in case of an outbreak of contagious disease.

The group advocates “every day carry” and “bug in” concepts – the idea that everyone should carry a first aid kit, energy bars, and a water bottle at all times.

“We’re not spreading fear, but promoting the importance of preventing disasters,” Wong says. “By promoting awareness of accidents and disasters, and the best way to deal with them, we reduce the burden on rescue workers in emergencies.”