The SNP government has come under fierce fire for backing Westminster’s plan to double the number of nuclear-powered submarines on the Clyde in the face of mounting concerns within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) about nuclear safety.
The UK government plans to make the Faslane naval base, near Helensburgh, the home port for Britain’s entire fleet of reactor-driven submarines. That will boost the number stationed at the base at any one time from five to 11.
The plan has been quietly welcomed by the SNP government because it will help keep jobs at the base. This is despite a series of damning criticisms in internal MoD safety reports, which question Faslane’s “readiness” for more nuclear submarines.
Now the Scottish government’s position has been attacked by one of the SNP’s elder statesmen, Stephen Maxwell, a former party vice-chair and leadership contender. It will leave Scotland exposed to nuclear accidents and to the “doomsday risks” of military or terrorist attacks, he warned.
“The MoD's own nuclear safety board has identified a range of risks from the current operations at Faslane, from accidents and radioactive leaks to the danger that cuts in MoD personnel are degrading the safety regimes,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“And that is before taking into account the impact of the projected increase in the number of submarines using the base. There are also unresolved issues in the nuclear reactors and the coolant processes on the new Astute class submarines.”
Reports from the MoD’s senior nuclear safety watchdog, released under freedom of information law, have revealed that the danger of accidents at Faslane and other UK nuclear weapons bases was getting “progressively worse” because of “painful” spending cuts.
There was a “lack of adequate resource to deliver the defence nuclear programmes safely,” said a 2010 report. The number of incidents at nuclear sites like Faslane was “too high” and there was a “risk to the workforce and public safety and to the environment, in both short and medium term.”
Another MoD report obtained by the Sunday Herald said that a growing backlog of unresolved safety issues at Faslane was “increasingly threatening Clyde's ability to conduct nuclear activities". Written in 2005, it warned that the base had a “struggle” to prove that it was ready to accept Astute submarines.
Maxwell, who was a research fellow in international affairs at Edinburgh University, argued that the SNP’s new policy in favour of nuclear submarines would expose an independent Scotland to a greater nuclear risk than it currently faces as part of the UK. He was speaking at a seminar in Glasgow yesterday organised by the SNP’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament group.
“On its current direction of evolution, SNP's defence policy threatens to match the level of incoherence already evident in UK policy,” he said. The SNP’s policy “is clearly inconsistent with its declared policy of making Scotland nuclear-free” and was “seriously compromising” the case for Scottish independence.
Though opposed to nuclear weapons, SNP policy has been ambivalent about nuclear-powered submarines (see below). But in a submission to the UK government’s review of military bases in June, the Scottish government said the decision to base more nuclear submarines at Faslane was “welcome”.
UK ministers announced in 2009 that by 2017 all the UK’s nuclear-powered submarines would be stationed at Faslane. The base currently hosts four nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Vanguard-class submarines, plus HMS Astute, the first in a new class of nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines.
In the next few years the last three nuclear-powered, conventionally armed Trafalgar-class submarines will move up from Devonport in Plymouth. They will be progressively decommissioned, as six new Astute-class submarines are brought into service (see below).
Opposition politicians reacted scathingly to the SNP’s nuclear policy. “The majority of anti-nuclear and anti-war Scots will be shocked to discover that the SNP is making the case on the quiet for more nuclear submarines to come to the Clyde, despite years of posturing in the opposite direction,” said the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie.
“SNP ministers are yet again pretending you can have your cake while also eating it, just as they have done on RAF bases. There's no credible way to combine a nuclear unionism - for the supposed jobs - with an anti-war nationalism designed to keep the activists happy.”
The SNP did not comment on nuclear submarines. “The SNP is totally opposed to the basing of nuclear weapons in Scotland,” said a party spokesperson. “A key advantage of independence is that it is the only constitutional option which gives Scotland the powers to have Trident removed from Scottish waters.”
Analysis: the SNP’s nuclear policy
There are two things that are clear about the Scottish National Party’s nuclear policy: it is opposed to nuclear weapons and it is opposed to new nuclear power stations.
The rest, however, is murkier. Its policy on the nuclear-powered - but not nuclear-armed - submarines stationed on the Clyde, has been something of a mystery. As has its attitude to the existing nuclear power stations at Torness in East Lothian and Hunterston in North Ayrshire.
In the party’s last two manifestos, for the Westminster election in 2010 and the Holyrood election this year, there were repeated mentions of its opposition to the Trident nuclear weapons system. The ambition was “freeing Scotland of nuclear weapons”.
But there was not a word about the reactor-driven submarines that are coming to the Clyde, thanks to a decision by the government in London. No wonder, then, that a passing comment in the Scottish Government’s submission to a UK review of military bases welcoming the submarines has been seized on by the SNP’s anti-nuclear lobby.
Similarly, the SNP manifestos proclaimed opposition to building new nuclear power stations in Scotland. But they were silent on the future of the reactors that currently generate electricity at Torness and Hunterston.
Should they be closed down, should they run until their planned closure dates, or should their lives be extended? Without clarity, these are issues that are likely to dog the SNP for years to come.
Nuclear-powered submarines in Scotland
Now based at Faslane
name / armed with
HMS Vanguard / Trident nuclear missiles
HMS Vengeance / Trident nuclear missiles
HMS Victorious / Trident nuclear missiles
HMS Vigilant / Trident nuclear missiles
HMS Asute / conventional Tomahawk missiles
Due to be based at Faslane by 2017
HMS Trenchant / conventional Tomahawk missiles
HMS Talent / conventional Tomahawk missiles
HMS Triumph / conventional Tomahawk missiles
Due to be based at Faslane in the longer term
/ conventional Tomahawk missiles
HMS Artful / conventional Tomahawk missiles
HMS Audacious / conventional Tomahawk missiles
HMS Agamemnon / conventional Tomahawk missiles
HMS Anson / conventional Tomahawk missiles
HMS Ajax / conventional Tomahawk missiles