The safety of Britain’s nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered submarines is being increasingly jeopardised by spending cutbacks and staff shortages, according to a new report from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The report, by the MoD’s internal nuclear safety regulator, Commodore David Langbridge, warns that there is a "lack of adequate resource to deliver the defence nuclear programmes safely". The problem is getting worse and requires “significant action”, he says.
The MoD is responsible for up to 220 nuclear warheads, used to arm Trident missiles on four reactor-driven submarines. The warheads are stored at Coulport near Glasgow, and regularly transported by road to and from the bomb factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire.
The Royal Navy also operates six nuclear powered but conventionally armed submarines, with a seventh due to come into service later this year. Five more are due to be commissioned by 2024, as old submarines are retired.
Langbridge is head of MoD’s Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator and his report covers 2011. It is the latest in a series of official reports expressing concern about cutbacks and nuclear safety released by the MoD after it was challenged under freedom of information law in 2010.
“Inadequacy of resources, both money and staff complement, and the difficulties in maintaining a sustainable cadre of suitably competent staff (Royal Navy, MoD civilians and in industry partners) are the principal threats to safety in the defence nuclear programme in the medium term,” Langbridge concluded.
He coded the lack of finance and staff as red, the highest level meaning “significant action might be necessary within a year”. The inadequacy of resources is defined as “degrading” because of continuing reductions in the MoD’s budget.
Langbridge pointed to particular shortages of submarine reactor engineers, and suggested that measures in hand to try and address the problem “may be insufficient”. Plans to reduce MoD staff a quarter by 2014-15 “provide a difficult backdrop”, he said.
He highlighted six other problems areas, though they are coded amber or green because the action required is less urgent. They include a lack of funding for decommissioning submarines, and “inconsistent” approaches to demonstrating plant safety and minimising exposure of radioactivity.
“The number of incidents remains too high,” he said. “Individually they have not been of high significance or safety/environmental detriment, but taken together, they produce concern that working conditions and culture might not prevent an incident of higher significance.”
The problem areas all represent a “potential compromise” to safety, according to Langbridge. “They pose the risk that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain that the defence nuclear programmes are being managed with due regard for the protection of the workforce, the public and the environment.”
Fred Dawson, who worked for the MoD for 31 years before he retired as head of the radiation protection policy team in 2009, accused ministers of ignoring the regulator’s repeated warnings. “The MoD has failed to allocated sufficient resources to nuclear safety,” he said.
John Ainslie, coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, suggested that ministers were asking the regulator to do more work with fewer resources. “The government is putting the safety of the public at risk by cutting the nuclear safety budget while they press ahead with the plan to build new nuclear-armed submarines,” he said.
The MoD, however, insisted that its nuclear safety record over the last 50 years was “excellent”. Said a spokesman: “The report recognises a wide range of actions we have already taken, and the progress that has been made, towards sustaining those high standards of safety, including actions on maintaining sufficient numbers of experienced personnel.”