a talk to the Scottish Government's summit on Scotland's Future Without Nuclear Weapons, Glasgow, 22 October 2007
I'm very pleased to be here. I want to talk very briefly about the work that's been done on the environmental impact of nuclear weapons, and provide some pointers as to what I think the Scottish Government may be able to do to block Westminster's plans to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system.
We have gleaned a good deal of information over the last couple of years from freedom of information requests to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). As a result we are much better informed about the potential risks of nuclear weapons - and about the potential tools available to the Scottish Government.
I want to talk first about the risks of nuclear weapons convoys, then a little about health and safety at the Faslane and Coulport nuclear bases. Next I will talk about the environmental controls, and say something about potential planning issues. I have to also make the usual caveat. The views I express are mine and not necessarily those of my employers.
Perhaps the most startling revelation came in an MoD document released to the then Green MSP Mark Ruskell in 2005. In a safety assessment of the nuclear weapons convoys that travel regularly by road between Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire and the Clyde naval base, the MoD said that an accident could trigger an accidental nuclear explosion. According to the MoD assessment, dated December 16, 2004, there was a risk of an "inadvertent yield" from a nuclear warhead, giving people lethal doses of radiation. It said that "multiple failures" triggered by a vehicle pile-up or aircraft crash could mean that "the nuclear weapon may not retain its single point safety nature". This is the main barrier to an accidental nuclear explosion. The MoD said that the risk was extremely low, and therefore acceptable "when balanced against the strategic imperative to move nuclear weapons."
The risk of an "inadvertent yield' - or a small nuclear explosion - was confirmed in a second MoD assessment which I obtained under freedom of information law, and wrote about in New Scientist in July 2006. I made the full MoD document available to download on my website here (8MB pdf), so that others could read it and draw their own conclusions. Another response to an FoI request by an anti-nuclear group confirmed there was also a serious risk from a terrorist attack on the nuclear bomb convoy. "Such an attack," wrote David Wray, the MoD Director of Information, on 4 May 2006, "has the potential to lead to damage or destruction of a nuclear weapon within the UK and the consequences of such an incident are likely to be considerable loss of life and severe disruption both to the British people's way of life and to the UK's ability to function effectively as a sovereign state."
Another report in July this year revealed that the bomb convoys had suffered 67 safety incidents over the last seven years, including mechanical faults and equipment failures. The safety of nuclear bomb convoys, as far as I am aware, are not subject to any independent regulation. The MoD will tell you that the convoys are regulated by their own internal regulators. In "Fact Sheet 6" on nuclear safety provided by the MoD for today's meeting, it states:
"Where the Ministry of Defence is exempt, or the law does not apply, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) provides independent internal regulation of the nuclear propulsion and weapons programmes, using near-identical processes and standards."
I would draw your attention to two particular phrases here. Safety is subject, they say, to "independent internal regulation" - that looks to me like a plain contradiction in terms. And the processes and standards are "near-identical", i.e. they are not the same. For those worried about this situation the MoD offers more reassurance:
"The Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator is accountable to the Chairman of the Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board (DNESB) whose appointment is on a personal basis and is independent of any departmental responsibility for delivery of the nuclear programme."
I'm sure we all find that very comforting. The problem is this whole process is very secretive. I'm not sure we even know the name of the Chairman of the Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board. And neither that organisation, nor the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator are at all open or transparent. It has been possible using freedom of information law to discover a little of their murky workings, but their reports, their safety assessments and much else remains hidden. This seems to me to fly in the face of the commonly accepted principle that safety regulation should be independent and open - and could perhaps give the Scottish Government a justified cause for complaint.
Safety at Faslane and Coulport
There are similar potential anomalies at the Faslane and Coulport naval bases, both with the nuclear reactors that power submarines and with the nuclear warheads. Again, using FoI requests, I have uncovered a series of disturbing safety problems. On 12 March 2006, I reported that safety lapses at the bases - including one in which workers were overexposed to radiation from a reactor - had been worrying inspectors from the government's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, part of the Health and Safety Executive. In another report on 3 September 2006, official figures showed that the number of "nuclear safety events" at the bases in 2004-05 - 45 - was double the average for the previous four years. Then in October 2006, more documents showed that Trident nuclear submarines docked at Faslane had suffered 22 "nuclear safety events" between June 2005 and May 2006. They included failures in radiation protection, mechanical defects and "berthing in extreme weather conditions".
Although there is some independent regulation of Faslane, and nuclear inspectors are regularly there, their powers are very limited. They cannot regulate the safety of the nuclear warheads, or the safety of submarines in operation. Crucially, Faslane and Coulport because they are operated by the MoD are not licensed nuclear sites, meaning that nuclear inspectors lack a full oversight of safety, and a whole range of statutory back-up powers, including enforced closure. This contrasts with the bomb factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield, which are run by contractors and so are fully licensed sites. Given the risks, and the number of safety incidents on the Clyde, this, at the very least, looks like an anomaly that ought to be rectified. A potential problem for the Scottish Government, however, is that the regulatory powers of the Health and Safety Executive are reserved to Westminster.
Earlier this month the Sunday Herald ran a story based on another document released to the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament under freedom of information law. This was an email (80KB pdf) from the MoD summarising the outcome of a meeting with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. The meeting had reviewed potential issues that might arise with the refurbishment of Faslane to accommodate a replacement for Trident. The email outlines a series of regulatory powers that SEPA would exercise over any development, including controls over contaminated land, water and other pollution. These are all devolved responsibilities, so ultimately the responsibility of the Scottish Government. The email didn't mention the disposal of radioactive waste, because, bizarrely, SEPA has no legal powers over that because MoD sites are exempt from the 1993 Radioactive Substances Act. Instead the MoD has agreed to act as if SEPA had legal powers, and there are a series of administrative agreements between the two organisation.
Intriguingly, the MoD email on the meeting with SEPA did mention the possibility of a new dry dock. It said: "Any future requirement for a dry dock could present problems. This is primarily related to the activities that would take place within it and how any discharge of contaminants...would be controlled." As well as being subject to environmental controls, it is probable that a new dry dock would also require planning permission, which would make it the responsibility of the local authority, and, again, ultimately, the Scottish Government. I understand that the Scottish Government can't comment on that for fear for prejudicing a future planning inquiry, but it potentially gives ministers another control.
All I've done here is quickly run through, on the basis of work I've been involved with, a number of potential ways in which I think the Scottish Government could seek to influence any future work on replacing Trident. There are, I've no doubt, many other possibilities, all worthy of discussion and exploration. The key task now, it seems to me, is to identify which stands the greatest chance of success.