Dozens of potentially disastrous flaws in the safety regime for nuclear weapons at Britain’s bomb bases, on public roads and at sea have been exposed by secret Ministry of Defence (MoD) reports seen by the Observer.
Safety practises at the bomb factory at Aldermaston in Berkshire have been “poor”, nuclear weapons convoys have suffered from “crew fatigue” and safety regulation has been ignored by nuclear submarine commanders, according to the MoD’s internal safety watchdogs.
The reports, released after a three-year freedom of information battle, also reveal that the “intrinsic safety” of Trident nuclear warheads was put at risk by an argument between Britain and the United States. A new US-made “arming, fusing and firing” system being fitted onto warheads worried the MoD’s Nuclear Weapon Regulator, Andy Moore.
There was a "medium risk that safety justifications will lack key information” and a need for "engagement with US on information supply,” he warned. This has been a highly sensitive issue within government.
Last month, the Observer reported that a major fire in a high explosive building in August had raised concerns about safety at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston. Fire brigade logs showed that 20 appliances and 95 crew fought the fire for almost nine hours.
These concerns have now been heightened by a series of damning reports from the MoD’s nuclear safety regulators. The MoD has been trying to keep the reports secret since 2007, but last week was forced to release them on the eve of an appeal to the UK Information Tribunal.
The reports provide a unprecedented insight into the intensely secretive world of Britain’s bomb. They reveal a series of hitherto unknown problems with safety across the whole nuclear weapons programme.
The most critical is a 2005 report from Moore listing eight “issues and regulatory risks”. There has been "slow progress in implementing the regulation framework for the nuclear weapons programme," he said.
This had been "sapping effort of all implementers and regulator". There was a problem with his authority at Aldermaston being “constrained” while a new contract for managing the site was being negotiated.
This created a risk that “AWE will not respond adequately” to his concerns, he reported. He pointed out, though, that he could still “exert influence, express opinion and has access to minister”.
Moore had even greater problems with the Royal Naval commanders of the four Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles. There was “confusion” over their safety responsibilities, he said.
The commitment of the commanders to respond to regulation was “uncertain”, he warned. “A recent re-issue of a safety management plan fails to acknowledge the introduction of regulation or the existence of the regulator.”
There were “inconsistent arrangements for managing transport activities", Moore’s report stated. This meant there was a risk that safety arrangements for moving nuclear materials like plutonium "does not meet departmental standards".
The report highlighted the danger that radioactive tritium could leak from warheads if there were an accident. This had a “potential impact on workforce and public protection" and risked confidence in accident response plans being "undermined", Moore said.
Another report for the MoD’s Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator in 2006, Commodore Andrew McFarlane, cautioned that "crew fatigue" could cause hazards during the transport of nuclear weapons by road. Convoys carrying warheads travel between Aldermaston and the naval nuclear bases on the Clyde near Glasgow up to six times a year.
Moore’s report also warned that funding restrictions at the Clyde bases could endanger safety. This had an “impact on Clyde's demonstrability of safety of nuclear weapons programme activities,” he said.
The absence of proper guidance meant that nuclear accidents could be “inappropriately notified” to ministers, he added. "There remains concern that arrangements for responding to events are in need of overhaul."
The independent nuclear consultant, John Large, said it was astonishing that there was uncertainty over the regulation of warheads at sea. “This is particularly worrisome from a public safety point of view,” he warned.
The argument with the US over the arming, fusing and firing system highlighted the UK’s “over-dependence” on the US, Large argued. He claimed this could breach the UN’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The prolonged battle to force the MoD to release the reports was backed by Fred Dawson, who worked for the MoD for 31 years and was head of its radiation protection policy team before he retired in 2009. “People may conclude that the culture of secrecy is due in part for the presentational need to hide poor safety and environmental performance,” he said.
The MoD admitted that concern was raised in 2005 about the process for obtaining information from the US on the arming, fusing and firing system. “This was resolved, reflecting the close working relationship that exists between the UK and US on nuclear matters,” said an MoD spokesman.
“We take any issues raised by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator seriously and act on their recommendations to ensure that our safety performance is as robust as possible.”
The five reports released by the Minister of Defence are available to download here as pdfs: Nuclear Weapon Regulator Annual Report 2004-05, Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator Inspection Report, Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator-Nuclear Weapon Regulator Quarterly Report, Atomic Weapons Establishment, Exercise Indian Footprint 2006.