Loch Ewe, on the northwest coast near Ullapool, is meant to be a haven for the Royal Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines if they have an accident. But internal MoD documents disclose that its use has been officially suspended for the last three years because emergency exercises betrayed a series of major flaws in safety arrangements.
The revelation has prompted accusations that the defence minister, Peter Luff MP, misled the UK parliament when he described Loch Ewe as an “operational berth” after the nuclear submarine, HMS Astute, was grounded off the Isle of Skye in October.
Loch Ewe has long been one of several sites around the UK designated by the MoD as harbours for nuclear submarines. It has two berths, one by a buoy in the loch and the other at a jetty near the village of Aultbea, where there is a naval fuel depot.
The MoD ran two exercises codenamed Highport to test Loch Ewe’s emergency arrangements in 2005 and 2008. Official post-mortems, just released under freedom of information law, show that they were plagued with “significant difficulties”.
One problem was that the police refused to join naval commanders at their coordination centre at Aultbea because it was inside the “hazard zone” and so would be contaminated with radioactivity. Instead, they set up a separate control centre by a road block further away.
According to the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), this led to “divided command and control” and “uncertainties” in the coordination with emergency services. There was “misrepresentation” and “contradictions” in radiation advice to the public, DNSR stated.
There were also “discrepancies and contradictions in the locations and responsibilities of key individuals”, it said. And it was unclear how submariners, some of whom could be injured, were meant to get ashore if their boat was berthed in the loch.
DNSR issued an internal notice on 20 May 2008 suspending the use of Loch Ewe as a submarine berth. The emergency plan breached safety regulations because it “does not constitute adequate arrangements for the protection of the workforce and public”, it said.
The suspension, which has not been disclosed before, is still in force. The use of another designated submarine berth at Broadford Bay on Skye was also suspended at the same time for the same reasons, though its designation was then withdrawn without explanation in July 2008.
The emergency arrangements at Loch Ewe were likened to “Dad’s Army” by the independent nuclear consultant, John Large, who obtained the documents from the MoD. There were some scenarios in which the submarine crew would be told to “swim for it, lads”, he said.
The absence of the police in the military command centre was particularly worrying, he argued. “Such an uncoordinated approach and a key missing member of the emergency services would render the emergency arrangements worthless.
Large also questioned why HMS Astute was allowed to operate in shallow waters around Skye when the use of nearby berths had been suspended. “She had nowhere to run to for safety,” he claimed.
The MoD insisted that Astute had no need of an emergency berth because she was able to return to her home port at Faslane on the Clyde under her own power. But defence minister Luff still referred to Loch Ewe as an “operational berth” on 11 November when he answered a parliamentary question from the SNP’s defence spokesman, Angus Robertson MP.
John Ainslie, the coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: “The MoD deliberately concealed the fact that they couldn’t use the only submarine berth in the area because their safety plans are inadequate. These vessels should not be prowling around the Minches if there is nowhere they can safely anchor when something goes wrong.”
The MoD was also accused of “high-handed behaviour” by Jean Urquhart, the SNP councillor for Wester Ross. “They do what they like and don’t communicate with local folk,” she said.
The MoD stressed that it was working to improve its emergency plan for Loch Ewe. “Until then submarines will not use the berths and there is no threat to the area,” said an MoD spokesman.
He denied that parliament had been misled. “Although the suspension remains in place at Loch Ewe, it is still technically classed as an operational berth”, he said.
The image of Loch Ewe is courtesy of www.westerross.info.