An internal Ministry of Defence (MoD) report has revealed that there were exactly 100 nuclear safety lapses at Faslane and Coulport, near Helensburgh, between June 2006 and May 2007. This was 40% higher than the previous year and nearly three times higher than in 2000-01.
Safety at the bases - home to the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system - has been condemned as “an absolute disgrace” by the Scottish National Party. The MoD, however, insisted that safety standards were improving.
The MoD released its latest annual review of “nuclear safety events” at the bases last week in response to a request from the Sunday Herald under freedom of information law in April. The mishaps included dropping a reactor control rod, breaching reactor containment and 32 power failures.
Two of the most serious incidents occurred on Trident submarines in September and December 2006. In both cases radioactive cooling water spilt from a faulty hose pipe, on one occasion contaminating a worker’s shoe.
The second of the incidents was categorised as having had “high potential for actual radioactive release to the environment”. The first, along with 19 other incidents, was defined as having had “actual or potential for a contained release within building or submarine”.
Another 40 incidents were said to have had “potential for future release by failure to adopt good practice and continuous improvement”. According to the MoD, the remaining 39 safety breaches had “no or little potential for release”.
In one incident in March this year two workers suffered skin contamination when radioactive fluid leaked from a submarine reactor after a test rig was disconnected. The workers had to be decontaminated with a “wash down procedure”.
Other lapses included an “unplanned reactor shutdown”, the “incorrect transfer of low-level waste” and “unauthorised helicopter operations”. A breach of safety rules when a Trident submarine was hoisted out of the water was blamed on a “breakdown in communication”.
According to the MoD report, 41 of the 100 incidents in 2006-07 were caused by “operator error”, while 24 were due to “equipment failure” (see tables below). At least 20 involved one of the four Vanguard “bomber” submarines, which each carry up to 48 nuclear warheads on Trident missiles.
Among the 25 “lessons learnt” listed by the MoD, are indications that the workforce may have been over stretched. “Management should be aware of the increased potential for errors through excessive work and take action where possible to guard against operator fatigue,” said the report.
It warned that “external pressures” must not compromise safe operation and singled out some naval officers for criticism. “The quartermaster’s position is a busy one and his areas of responsibility are numerous and diverse,” the report added. “He must not allow himself to be distracted from his duties.”
The report was described as “deeply worrying” yesterday by the SNP MSP, Bill Kidd. “For there to be one safety incident would be bad enough, but 100 is an absolute disgrace,” he said.
“There is clearly an underlying problem with nuclear safety at Faslane and Coulport - one that will no doubt worry those who work there, and who live and work nearby. Far from the MoD's safety record improving, it is deteriorating fast.”
According to Kidd, the real dangers of maintaining nuclear weapons had now been exposed. Trident should be removed from Scotland, and plans to replace it should be abandoned, he argued.
John Ainslie, co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), pointed out that there had been a significant increase in the number of serious incidents. “The MoD's attempt to dismiss this as better record keeping is a sign of complacency,” he said.
“This report suggests that safety standards at Faslane have fallen when personnel at the base have been overworked.”
The MoD argued that the number of recorded incidents had increased because of the introduction of a new and more rigorous reporting system. Nuclear safety checks were carried out to the highest possible standard, the ministry maintained.
“None of the incidents in the current report represented any threat to the health of any member of staff on the base or, of course, to any member of the public,” said an MoD spokesman. “That these reports are made public shows that we have a transparent process in place for dealing with any incidents which occur with regard to our nuclear assets.”
Download a copy of the Ministry of Defence's internal report in four parts: here (384KB pdf), here (1.2MB pdf), here (292KB pdf) and here (208KB pdf).
SAFETY LAPSES AT THE CLYDE NUCLEAR SUBMARINE BASE
year / number of nuclear safety incidents
2006-07 / 100
2005-06 / 71
2004-05 / 79
2003-04 / 61
2002-03 / 41
2001-02 / 39
2000-01 / 35
TOTAL / 426
cause / number of lapses in 2006-07
Operator error / 41
Equipment failure / 24
Submarine incident / 13
Procedural error / 10
Other / 12
TOTAL / 100
source: Ministry of Defence