by Rob Edwards and Severin Carrell
Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet has been hit by a series of serious safety breaches involving repeated leaks of radioactive waste from submarines, broken pipes and waste tanks at its home base on the Clyde, the Ministry of Defence has disclosed.
In a confidential report released under the Freedom of Information Act, the MoD has admitted that safety failings at the UK’s main nuclear submarine base at Faslane near Glasgow are a “recurring theme” and ingrained in the base’s culture.
The worst breaches include three leaks of radioactive coolant from nuclear submarines in 2004, 2007 and 2008 into the Firth of Clyde, while last year a radioactive waste plant manager was replaced. It emerged he had no qualifications in radioactive waste management.
The repeated safety breaches, which have been revealed in documents released to Channel 4 News, (see video) are so serious that the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) has warned that it would consider closing the base down if it had the legal powers to do so.
The MoD is legally exempt from the civil radioactive safety regulations policed by Sepa but promised the agency a number of times it would voluntarily uphold those laws at the base – promises that Sepa has now accused the MoD of repeatedly breaking.
The documents also suggest that Faslane will become the UK’s only nuclear submarines base by 2015, The Guardian can reveal, greatly increasing the significance of the safety crisis at the base.
They disclose that Devonport submarine base in Plymouth has been earmarked for closure, with three Trafalgar-class submarines due to be transferred to Faslane over the next six years, joining four Trident nuclear missile submarines and rest of the UK’s nuclear hunter killer fleet.
The four oldest Trafalgar submarines will remain at Devonport until they are retired from service, where they will join a “nuclear graveyard” of decommissioned vessels at the yard.
The catalogue of incidents at Faslane, undisclosed until today, include:
- The withdrawal from service of the main waste discharge barge because it was antiquated and faulty.
- Admissions by the MoD that safety failings are “a recurring theme” at Faslane, and are a “cultural issue” at the base. Staff are poorly trained, staffing levels inadequate and maintenance poor.
- The discovery that two radioactive waste tanks are now a “significant” and “growing” radiation hazard because of a build-up of radioactive sludge, and need to be taken out of service.
- Defective welds in radioactive waste pipes allowed waste to leak out undetected, while inspections revealed a series of loose pipework and leaking seals.
The MoD insists that none of the radioactive leaks have threatened human health or the local environment since the radioactivity was at very low levels. “The discharges had no measurable or quantifiable environment consequences,” it said.
Sepa agrees the risks appear to be slight but argued that in many cases, Faslane workers failed to measure the amount of effluent which leaked or detect the leaks until after the incident, leaving the MoD unable to establish how serious leaks had been. After the leak from HMS Torbay, Sepa has privately debated making a formal protest to ministers if the problems continued.
Campbell Gemmell, Sepa’s chief executive, told Channel 4 News: “It is not acceptable simply to say these incidents were minor. We need to make sure they have the systems in place to prevent any incidents happening, so that we don’t have to worry whether the potential consequences are serious or not.”
A civil nuclear power station guilty of these breaches would be facing temporary closure, he added. “With a civilian operator, we would be having very robust conversations about prohibiting further action until we could see clear demonstrations of systems and training that would prevent this ever happening again,” he said.
Today’s disclosures are likely to increase demands from the ruling Scottish National party government in Edinburgh for the base to be closed down, and are to be studied by an SNP-sponsored working group opposed to replacing the Trident nuclear missile fleet.
Angus Robertson, the SNP’s leader at Westminster and its defence spokesman, said: “It is totally horrifying. The MoD thinks it is above the law. That is not acceptable.”
Gemmell said Sepa had asked the UK government to bring Faslane under the agency’s direct legal control because of its anxieties about the base’s safety standards, but ministers have decided the base needs to retain Crown immunity on national security grounds.
The MoD said it takes its safety duties very seriously. “The MoD is a responsible nuclear operator and immediately informed the regulatory authorities,” said a spokesman. “We commissioned an independent study into the facilities and practices at HM Naval Base Clyde and an improvement plan is currently underway to ensure modern standards and best practice at the base.”
The full version of the Channel Four News story can be viewed here.
Listen to a Guardian podcast on the story here.
This story was followed up by the Financial Times, BBC, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Herald, The Scotsman, Daily Record, and many others. It also prompted a cartoon in the Edinburgh Evening News and an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons.