Official reports obtained by the Sunday Herald reveal that Faslane and Coulport have been plagued by nuclear accidents, radioactive contamination and fires over the last two years.
Worryingly, there have been unspecified “shortfalls” in the safe management of nuclear bombs. And rules meant to protect people against asbestos and Legionnaires’ disease have been frequently broken.
The government’s safety watchdogs have also warned that unless millions of pounds are invested in replacing the ageing radioactive waste plants at Faslane, it will no longer be safe in four years time. That will add to the multi-billion bill for keeping nuclear weapons in Scotland, critics say.
Faslane, on Gareloch, is the home port for the four Vanguard-class submarines that carry Trident missiles, as well as other nuclear-powered submarines. Coulport, on Loch Long, is where nuclear warheads for the missiles are kept.
The MoD last week released annual health, safety and environment reports for HM Naval Base Clyde covering 2007-08 and 2008-09, in response to requests under freedom of information law. The reports reveal for the first time the huge range of safety problems Faslane and Coulport are having to cope with.
Over the last two years there have been 167 nuclear safety incidents, 17 of which led to releases of radioactivity, or had the potential to do so. In the majority of cases, the root cause was said to be human error.
In one incident in 2008-09, two underwater divers working on jetties at Faslane “strayed into an area where they received a slightly higher dose of radiation than expected”, records one report. The event triggered a high-level investigation.
The number of nuclear incidents in recent years at the Clyde bases has been higher than in previous years. Since 2000, there have been a total of 587 nuclear safety “events” recorded (see table below).
On “nuclear weapon assurance”, the reports disclose that there are problems, but don’t say what they are. They just say that “shortfalls in the Clyde safety management arrangements” have been identified by the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR).
There have been 27 fires over the last two years, and a massive 783 false fire alarms, 233 due to faulty equipment and 42 defined as “malicious”. Says one report: “There was a shortfall in the fire safety management systems throughout HMNB Clyde.”
There have also been 81 pollution incidents, including oil spills and sewage discharges, and a string of broken environmental rules. Procedures meant to protect staff against asbestos contamination have been breached 15 times, and those against Legionnaires' disease 20 times. Both conditions can be fatal.
Other internal documents obtained by the Sunday Herald from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) reveal that safety regulators are worried about the ageing radioactive waste plants at Faslane. A radioactive leak from the nuclear submarine, HMS Torbay, into Gareloch in 2008 led to the site’s environmental performance being judged “unsatisfactory” by Sepa.
The leak, the third in five years, forced the MoD to scrap some of its radioactive waste facilities and upgrade others. But now the ministry has been given a deadline of 2014 to completely replace the facilities.
Sepa and the DNSR warn that it will be “very difficult” to assess the existing facilities as safe beyond that date. “The regulators are concerned at the increasingly challenging timescale for replacing existing facilities within their design life, and will maintain close engagement on this issue,” says a letter from DNSR’s principal inspector for Clyde and Devonport, Douglas Black.
Faslane and Coulport, which employ 6,500 people, have been looking after nuclear-powered submarines and nuclear weapons since the 1960s. But for decades many of their activities weren’t properly regulated, and some of their tanks, pipelines and other equipment are now showing their age.
“These new revelations highlight the dangers posed by the ageing facilities at Faslane,” said John Ainslie, co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
He accused the MoD of moving slowly on the new radioactive waste plant because it will be expensive. “This new nuclear waste dump will further increase the multi-billion pound bill that we are paying to keep nuclear weapons in Scotland,” he argued.
The MoD pointed out that it had a rigorous monitoring system which encouraged the reporting of any incident, however minor. “The vast majority of nuclear safety events recorded at HMNB Clyde refer to procedural errors and not safety concerns,” said an MoD spokeswoman.
“None caused any harm to the environment or the health of the workforce or public. Final decisions on the design and cost of replacing the radioactive waste management facility have not yet been made.”
Faslane: infested with rats and dive-bombed by gulls
It is not just nuclear safety that is worrying the Faslane naval base on the Clyde. There’s the rats, the gull attacks, the bird poo and the feral cats.
The safety reports for the last two years released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) disclose myriad problems with animals at the base. Demolition work has led to a “marked increase” in the number of rat sightings, says the report for 2008-09.
Populations of seagulls “have been increasing steadily, along with reports from individuals at the sharp end of dive-bombing and aggressive behaviour”, it adds.
Pigeons and jackdaws that leave unwelcome deposits in the Faslane shiplift and under the jetties have become victims of a “control programme”. This, according to the report, “has reduced the amount of bird guano and subsequently the exposure of personnel working on equipment in these areas.”
There is also a “healthy population” of feral cats at Faslane, which is kept under control by neutering older cats. In July 2008 a kitten was grabbed by a gull but then dropped on to a razor wire fence.
MoD officers raced to the scene and managed to rescue the kitten, called Blackie. “This resulted in widespread coverage of the story in the local and national press,” says the report.
Nuclear safety lapses at the Clyde naval base
year / number of nuclear safety incidents
2008-09 / 71
2007-08 / 96
2006-07 / 94
2005-06 / 71
2004-05 / 79
2003-04 / 61
2002-03 / 41
2001-02 / 39
2000-01 / 35
TOTAL / 587
Other safety problems
problem / total for 2007-08 and 2008-09
pollution incidents / 81
fires / 27
false fire alarms / 783
breaches of asbestos rules / 15
breaches of rules on Legionnaires' disease/ 20
breaches of other environmental rules / 136
breaches of health and safety rules / 32
legal claims for injuries / 31
dangerous goods incidents / 3
“shortfalls” in the safe management of nuclear weapons / unspecified
source: Ministry of Defence
Download a copy of the letter to HMNB Clyde from the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator here (778KB pdf).
Read an earlier story about nuclear safety incidents at HMNB Clyde here.