The government has “war-game” emergency plans to cope with power cuts lasting up to seven days in the event of a national blackout amid growing fears about security of supply this winter.
The Guardian has seen documents, labeled “officially sensitive”, which warn that in a “reasonable worst-case scenario”, all sectors including transport, food and water supply, communications and energy could be “severely disrupted” for up to a week.
They show ministers will prioritize getting food, water and shelter to young and older people, as well as those with caring responsibilities, if the country experiences blackouts, with the Met Office warning Britain faces a higher risk of a cold winter.
Whitehall officials are currently stress testing Program Yarrow, the confidential plan to cope with a blackout, and have held a series of exercises with government departments and councils across the country in recent days.
The cross-state plan was first established in 2021, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to improve planning and resilience in the event of a major technical failure of the national grid. It is not related to the energy outlook published by National Grid for this winter.
However, concerns over the impact of a blackout have increased as a result of the war, with government insiders admitting that planning exercises had taken on a new urgency as a result of the resulting energy crisis, which has seen household energy bills rise.
Ed Miliband, the shadow climate secretary, said: “All governments do contingency planning for worst case scenarios but the truth is we are vulnerable as a country as a direct result of a decade of failed Conservative energy policy.
“Banning onshore wind, reducing investment in energy efficiency, ending nuclear power and closing gas storage have led to higher bills and dependence on gas imports, making us more vulnerable to the effects of Putin’s use of energy as a geopolitical weapon.”
The type of technical failure envisaged by government planners includes flood damage or a lightning strike at a substation, but could also cover an attack by a hostile state on undersea cables following Russian attacks on Nord Stream energy lines.
The leak comes after a warning from Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, on Monday that Britain had become “more vulnerable” in recent years as countries seeking to do it harm had “leveled the playing field” by investing time and money in new technology.
In the worst-case scenario outlined in the plan, only analogue FM radios would work, with only BBC Radio 2 and 4 broadcasts, and uncertainties surrounding local radio as some stations only have a couple of hours of back-up generator protection.
The Guardian revealed last month that the BBC has prepared secret scripts to be read on air if energy shortages cause blackouts or loss of gas supplies this winter.
A source said: “The government doesn’t want any publicity about Yarrow because they don’t want it to be seen as linked to Ukraine, energy supplies and the cost of living. But we have to think about how we can help people in advance. The fact that they are talking about it now means they have a real concern that it could happen.”
Cabinet sources said they did not recognize the claim, as the planning was not related to events in Ukraine.
Program Yarrow is preparing for a situation where power is unavailable, without any warning, to all premises without backup generators during the winter. It predicts that 60% of electricity demand will be met “between day 2 and day 7” when households and businesses will be given “intermittent access” to rationing supply.
An agreement between the energy regulator Ofgem and National Grid stipulates that 100% of electricity demand must be restored after a week. The government expects that goal to be reached even in a worst-case scenario.
“All sectors will be severely disrupted, including communications, transport networks, energy supply, food and water supply,” a document said.
The Yarrow plans are preparing for a more serious situation than that described by National Grid last month, which warned that Britons could face three-hour blackouts in a worst-case scenario if temperatures drop sharply and Russia cuts gas supplies to Europe.
Under the Emergency Electricity Supply Code, households and businesses will be given 24 hours notice of a planned outage, and the plan can be published up to a week ahead on a rolling basis.
The “root disconnection plan” is designed to reduce power evenly across the country. The power outages should initially only happen once a day for three hours, although it may take up to an hour to reconnect after that. However, the frequency of outages will depend on the severity of the energy supply shortfalls.
Jan Rosenow, head of Europe at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an energy think tank, said: “There are so many things coming together at the same time: the gas shortage, high prices, the problems with electricity generation from nuclear power plants in France. That’s what’s causing the anxiety in the government. It is careful [to plan for outages]. It’s a shame it takes a crisis to have this conversation.”
A government spokesperson said: “As a responsible government, it is right that we plan for all potential scenarios and work with industry to prepare and exercise robust contingency plans. This work is ongoing and is an important part of our national resilience planning.
“Local and national exercises are part of this ongoing work and ensure we can effectively respond to a wide range of scenarios, however unlikely they may be.”
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