The Sunday Herald can reveal that the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport has narrowly avoided being licensed for inspection by the UK government’s nuclear safety watchdog. This is despite its operation being taken over in January by a group of private companies headed by the US arms dealer, Lockheed Martin.
The revelation has prompted one former senior MoD safety official to warn that workers and the public are being put at risk by lower safety standards. It has also angered politicians and trade unions, who suspect a “cosy stitch-up” to save money.
Ministry of Defence (MoD) nuclear sites have historically had crown immunity from prosecution because they’ve not been covered by nuclear safety legislation. But in the past when their management was put into private hands, this has had to change.
In 1997 the bomb-making factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire were licensed under the Nuclear Installations Act and subject to independent inspections after they were handed over to private companies. Critics say this has greatly improved safety and transparency.
But the same has not happened at Coulport. Internal documents released under freedom of information law show that the companies now running the nuclear weapons store escaped safety licencing because the MoD’s continuing oversight was deemed “the absolute minimum that is acceptable.”
After a visit last November, the UK government’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) decided that Coulport did not need to become a nuclear licensed site. This followed arguments from site staff that new management arrangements were sufficient to “guard against potential licensing by ONR”.
ONR has said, however, that it will keep the decision under review, and will look at it again later this year. One ONR inspector warned in 2010 of a “serious risk” that more company control would mean that Coulport would have to be licensed.
Fred Dawson, who worked for the MoD for 31 years before he retired as head of the radiation protection policy team in 2009, accused the MoD of having its cake and eating it. It was contracting out its operations while “still clinging to crown exemption”, he said.
He pointed out that the nearby nuclear submarine base at Faslane, as well as the Vulcan naval reactor testing facility at Dounreay in Caithness, were also exempt from civil safety regulation (see table below). “MoD fears that it cannot meet the same safety standards as the civil sector,” he said.
“This also by implication means that workers on MoD sites such Faslane, Coulport and Vulcan, and the public, are at greater risk than at civil nuclear sites.”
Sprawled across the slopes above Loch Long and surrounded by Cold War watchtowers, Coulport houses the bunkers in which Trident missiles and their nuclear warheads are kept. It is managed by the ABL Alliance, including AWE, which runs Aldermaston and Burghfield, Babcock, which manages Faslane and Devonport, and Lockheed Martin.
The SNP’s defence spokesman at Westminster, Angus Robertson MP, has written to ONR asking for Coulport’s management and safety arrangements to be kept under review. He also wants the Scottish government to be consulted on any future licensing decisions.
“The decision to keep Coulport outside the civil nuclear safety regime bears all the hallmarks of a cosy stitch-up between two government departments, rather than a decision taken in the best interests of protecting the public,” he said.
“Even though Trident's days at Coulport are numbered, it is essential to be sure that nuclear safety is given the highest priority at the site while the warheads remain there, and when they are being transported from the site along Scotland's roads.”
Ian Fraser, secretary of the west of Scotland branch of the Public and Commercial Services union, called for an investigation by the House of Commons defence select committee. “It seemed from my dealing with this project over the last five years, there was an absolute determination from the MoD to put this work out no matter what the potential risks,” he said.
“This was always about saving money for the MoD, not about the best solution for Coulport.”
The Coulport documents were obtained by the Nuclear Information Service, which called for the site’s safety arrangements to be brought under ONR’s control. Allowing civilian safety inspectors into Aldermaston and Burghfield led to a “massive improvement in safety standards,” said the group’s Peter Burt.
ONR said that, as long as Coulport remained part of the HM Naval Base Clyde, it did not need to be licensed. “MoD clearly and demonstrably retain control of this site, which is a key difference between Coulport and the Aldermaston and Burghfield sites,” said an ONR spokeswoman.
“Safety has not been put at risk as a result and ONR is content with the current regulatory regime.” The site would still be inspected by the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR).
The ONR spokeswoman added: “We will re-inspect the position later in 2013 after the new arrangements have had time to become fully established. ONR will keep the status of Coulport under regular review if there are any future changes to the MoD control of the site.”
The MoD argued that Coulport was “fundamentally different” from Aldermaston because it was still “ultimately controlled” by the MoD. “The safety and security of our nuclear locations is paramount,” said an MoD spokesman.
“As a MoD-controlled site, Coulport is subject to regulation by the DNSR, the ONR and other regulatory bodies. Their reports show Coulport has an excellent safety record which we are committed to maintaining.”
Defence nuclear sites subject to independent safety inspectionsAWE, Aldermaston
BAE Systems Marine, Barrow-in-Furness
Devonport Royal Dockyard, Plymouth
Rolls Royce Marine Power Operations, Derby
Rosyth Royal Dockyard, Fife
Defence nuclear sites not subject to independent safety inspectionsHM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane and Coulport
Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment, Dounreay
Submarine operational berths
HM Naval Base Devonport, Plymouth
source: Office for Nuclear Regulation