by Rob Edwards and Severin Carrell
They are devastating admissions about one of Britain’s most significant nuclear sites, the sprawling and heavily-defended base for the UK’s nuclear deterrent at Faslane, a facility which dominates the coastline on a quiet sea loch north-west of Glasgow.
Detailed within 400 pages of closely-typed internal reports, emails and letters released under the Freedom of Information, are startling admissions of a culture of incompetence, repeated safety breaches and basic failures of management at the base.
Faslane has been home to the UK’s nuclear missile fleet since Polaris came into service in the mid-60s, and is now the base for the four Trident missile submarines that replaced it. The facility, known formally as HM Naval Base Clyde, is also the base for one remaining nuclear-powered Swiftsure hunter killer, and four Astute class submarines coming into service from next year.
Alongside seven Trafalgar class hunter killers currently based at Devonport in Plymouth, these vessels are routinely serviced at Faslane: their nuclear reactors produce radioactive coolant that has to be replaced and need regular maintenance. That waste, which can contain radioactive tritium, cobalt 60, nickel 63, iron 55 and argon 41 gas, is handled and stored using a complex series of storage barges, tanks and pipes deep within the base.
And for nearly five decades, that process has been managed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) without any outside control or supervision. That system of self-policing is now under increasing strain.
Shocked by the repeated safety breaches at the base, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), the government authority that oversees radioactive emissions from civil nuclear sites, is pressing for the legal power to inspect and control Faslane’s nuclear operations.
The most damning report, produced by the MoD itself in September 2008 after a series of complaints by Sepa, bluntly states that failing to abide by safety procedures is a “recurring theme” at Faslane. “This is a cultural issue that HM Naval Base Clyde needs to find a way to address,” it says.
The 100-page internal report, released by Sepa to Channel 4 News, concludes that many of the ageing facilities used to process, store and dispose of radioactive waste at Faslane are not fit for purpose.
A series of other documents released by Sepa under the Freedom of Information Act disclose there have been at least eight radioactive leaks at the base in the last 10 years, bringing the total number of leaks acknowledged at Faslane over the last three decades to more than 40. In 1998, the then defence minister John Spellar disclosed there had been 33 incidents there since 1980.
The MoD admits its facilities fail to meet modern safety standards requiring that the “best practicable means” are used to minimise and control waste. In one case, the poor design of holding tanks has meant radioactive sludge has built up, which presents a “significant radiation hazard”. Those tanks are now going to be taken out of service.
Waste pipes have weld defects, and have caused radioactive contamination. Drawings meant to show the design of pipelines and a crucial waste storage tank are “misleading”, “contradictory” or entirely missing, while in one place a pipe bracket has “come adrift” from a wall.
“From the evidence of recent events there is a lack of confidence in the integrity of the containment provided by the pipeline systems,” the report concludes.
Staffing levels are too low and training poor, the report concedes, while another memo states that the manager of the radioactive waste processing and disposal plants had been replaced because he had not attended “a recognised course on radioactive waste management”. That waste processing plant, Sepa later warned Faslane, is “in desperate need of improvement.”
Facing intensifying pressure from Sepa, and a growing political clamour within Scotland for the base to be closed down, the MoD is adamant it can and will tackle the base’s safety problems independently, without external oversight or control.
The report makes 27 recommendations designed to bring the equipment, facilities and practices at Faslane up to modern safety standards, and the MoD insists that none of the leaks at the base currently threaten human health or the local environment – a position Sepa accepts, but only with significant caveats.
In its own internal reports and its complaints to Faslane, Sepa’s frustrations with the base’s handling of its repeated safety failings are made increasingly clear. They reveal a substantial breakdown in trust involving Sepa and Faslane’s commanders.
Those anxieties culminated with the leak of radioactive effluent from HMS Torbay in February last year. That was the third leak into the Clyde in four years: waste had been discharged from HMS Trafalgar in 2004, and from HMS Superb in 2007 – an incident was only detected after the leak occurred.
After each earlier incident, Sepa had issued Faslane with warning letters and each time the base had promised to improve its practices. But the Torbay incident suggested those promises had not been honoured: it was “of utmost concern as it demonstrates a number of inadequacies in radioactive waste management practices at HMNB Clyde, Faslane,” the agency stated. It represented “a failure by MoD to act in accordance with a number of the conditions set down” in a letter of agreement from 1993.
The agency again wrote to Faslane, asking them to act as if Sepa had the same legal powers at the base as its does over Scotland’s nuclear power plants. “For incidents of this nature in the civil sector it is standard practice for Sepa to consider regulatory action such as an enforcement notice,” the agency told the MoD.
But in one internal memo, Sepa acknowledges it is currently powerless to take enforcement action. But if the incidents continue, it concludes, and its calls for action are ignored, the agency may have to “reconsider its position” and take the issue to higher levels, up to and including the Secretary of State for Defence, in London.
Seven documents released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency are available to download here. An eighth, entitled 'Future Radioactive Waste Management Capability', can be downloaded here (748Kb pdf).