Comment, 10 March 2014
“There was little new to report,” lieutenant commander Rory Stewart, deputy commander of the Vulcan naval reactor near Dounreay in Caithness, told more than 30 community representatives gathered at the Pentland Hotel in Thurso on the 7 March 2012.
He was giving an update on events at the Vulcan plant over the last three months to the Dounreay Stakeholder Group, a forum set up to improve transparency and trust. We now know the commander was being – let’s be generous here - economical with the truth.
Last week the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, told the House of Commons that in January 2012 radioactivity was detected leaking into the reactor’s cooling water. This resulted, he said, in Vulcan being shut down for investigations until November 2012 “as a precaution” - as well as a £270 million rethink of the navy’s nuclear submarine programme.
None of this was mentioned by Stewart. According to the agreed minutes of the meeting, published online, he said: “Core burn operations continue to programme”.
When the Dounreay Stakeholder Group reassembled in the hotel on 13 June 2012, they were again assured by their chairman, Bob Earnshaw, that it had been “business as usual for Vulcan”.
The same pattern can be seen elsewhere. The Ministry of Defence’s internal safety watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), said in its report to the stakeholder group on the first three months of 2012 that “no non-routine matters arose during this period.” It said the same in its report for the second quarter of 2012.
The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the UK’s government health and safety watchdog, also publishes quarterly reports on the Vulcan reactor. All four reports for 2012 said the same: “There were no items of particular note during the current reporting period.”
Yet DNSR, according to Hammond, did know about the radioactive leak into the cooling water, and presumably also that the reactor was shut down as a result. And ONR has said that it was told of the problem by DNSR “in the summer 2012”.
Until last week, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) also said nothing publicly about Vulcan’s little incident. Like ONR, it had been told by the MoD to keep information “on a strict need to know basis for security reasons”.
We now also know that even when Hammond did disclose what had happened, he was misleading. He insisted that there had been “no measurable change in the radiation discharge” from the site despite official figures showing a tenfold rise in emissions due to the incident.
It is, as the First Minister, Alex Salmond, has said, a tangled web of deceit, which begs a host questions. It has already been given the hashtag “vulcangate”, prompted demands for inquiries across the political spectrum and a suggestion that heads should roll. The Scottish environment minister, Richard Lochhead, is due to give a statement to the Scottish parliament about it tomorrow.
Why did the MoD insist that a radioactive problem at its submarine test reactor should remain secret for two years? What exactly are the security reasons that justify secrecy in 2012 and 2013, but not in 2014?
Why were Sepa and ONR not told about the problem until months after it occurred? Why where the community representatives on the Dounreay Stakeholder Group given a series of reassurances in 2012 that have turned out to be false?
Why, above all, is the MoD still permitted to run some of the some dangerous nuclear operations on the planet without any statutory, independent safety regulation? We should be told.