In the last five years there have been 316 “nuclear safety events”, 2,044 fire alarms and 71 fires at the Royal Navy’s controversial facilities at Faslane and Coulport near Helensburgh. There have also been over 3,000 “near miss” industrial accidents, a positive test for illegal drugs and a series of difficulties with wild animals.
The revelations have been described as “chilling” by the Scottish National Party’s leader at Westminster and defence spokesman, Angus Robertson MP. He is planning to raise them urgently in the House of Commons, and is demanding action from the MoD.
The new figures showed that nuclear safety breaches at the Clyde bases were “widespread”, he said. “Wherever nuclear weapons are concerned safety must be paramount. We need to know exactly what is being done to address these breaches and tighten procedures.”
The panoply of problems at the home of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system has been disclosed by the MoD’s last four annual health and safety reports covering 2009-10 to 2012-13. They were requested by the Sunday Herald under freedom of information law in January and released last week.
They show that the number of nuclear safety events reported increased 15 per cent from 59 in 2011-12 to 68 in 2012-13. Incidents involving nuclear weapons rose from seven to 11, while those involving submarine reactors rose from 52 to 57.
About half of the incidents were defined by the MoD as “category C”, meaning that they had the “potential” to cause radioactive contamination. Most of the rest were defined as “category D”, meaning there was “no or little potential” for contamination.
One incident in 2012-13 was rated as “category B” because it exposed workers to radiation. Though the MoD reports don’t give details of this or other incidents, the Sunday Herald has been able to uncover what happened (see story below).
The “overall increase” in nuclear incidents was highlighted by the MoD in its 2012-13 report. “This is reflected by a corresponding increase in the number of category D, category C and category B events,” it said.
“This is counter to the general falling trend for annual figures that we have previously seen.” The report offered no explanation for the increase.
In total 316 nuclear safety events were recorded at the Clyde bases for the five years up to 2012-13. In the same period there were 2,044 fire alarms, the vast majority of which were false, and 71 fires.
Over four years there were also 3,243 industrial health and safety incidents reported as “near misses”. The number of such reports leapt by more than 50 per cent from 724 in 2011-12 to 1,143 in 2012-13, though this is attributed by the MoD to increased awareness (see tables below).
The MoD reports say that a programme to randomly test 20 workers a month for alcohol and drugs was introduced in October 2011. The report for 2011-12 reveals that one test confirmed the presence of an illegal drug, but no information is given for subsequent years - and the MoD refused to say whether any other staff had tested positive since.
The Clyde bases have also had to endure repeated problems with wildlife, including the build-up of guano from birds in working areas. Seagulls, pigeons, jackdaws, foxes and rats have all been culled, feral cats neutered and a submarine treated for an infestation of red-rust flour beetles.
The independent nuclear expert, John Large, was scathing about the MoD’s safety standards. “From these reports, one gets the distinct impression that health and safety operations at HMNB Clyde are more akin to those practiced in a backstreet car repair shop than a naval base servicing advanced and armed warships, some of which are carrying nuclear weapons and propelled by nuclear reactors,” he said.
Safety problems were increasing, the number of false fire alarms was “totally unacceptable” and the MoD reports were “muddled and at times misleading”, Large alleged. “The regulation of health and safety matters at the base should be taken from the military and put squarely under the control of a civilian operated regulatory regime.”
The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament accused the MoD of failing to gain control of the risks of handling nuclear weapons and submarines. “The sharp rise in nuclear weapons safety events is particularly worrying,” said the campaign’s coordinator, John Ainslie.
“If the safety record continues to decline then it is only a matter of time before there is a major problem."
The MoD stressed that safety at the Clyde bases was of paramount importance. “That is why our comprehensive reporting system captures even the most minor of incidents and measures are put in place to prevent any repeat,” said an MoD spokeswoman.
“It is entirely misleading to focus only on the number of incidents detailed in these reports. Fluctuations in numbers between years are perfectly normal. None of the events in the reports caused any harm to the health of any member of staff on the naval base, or to any member of the public.”
The MoD has previously pointed out that the Clyde naval bases are the biggest employment sites in Scotland, with 6,700 military and civilian jobs. This is due to rise to 8,200 by 2022, as more nuclear-powered submarines are moved there.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been reprimanded by government safety regulators for exposing workers to radiation at the Faslane nuclear submarine base near Helensburgh.
A group of workers carried out maintenance in a tank next to a live submarine reactor at Faslane without the proper radiation controls in place. They were irradiated as a result, though the doses were said to be low.
“ONR raised a concern due to the failure to adequately control the work and prevent it taking place when the reactor was operational,” said an ONR report on safety at Faslane.
“This resulted in a failure to properly designate the area and to properly assess the risks to workers arising from the operation. This resulted in lack of ability to demonstrate that any doses received by the workers were as low as reasonably practicable.”
ONR consulted with DNSR and they jointly served the MoD with a formal warning letter, promising a joint inspection of the arrangements for controlling work near submarines at Faslane.
The Sunday Herald has confirmed that this incident is the one rated as most serious in the MoD’s 2012-13 health and safety report for the Clyde naval base, released under freedom of information law. The MoD report gives no detail about the incident, except to say that it involved a submarine reactor and was classified as a “category B” nuclear safety event, which can include “an unplanned level of radiation exposure”.
The failure of the MoD report to spell out what had happened was strongly criticised by the independent nuclear engineer, John Large. Its report was a “gross misrepresentation” of health and safety performance and possibly a breach of radiation safety reporting rules, he claimed.
“All indications are that this incident involved Faslane personnel working on a radioactive liquor tank connected to a nuclear reactor that was running and critical at the time,” Large said.
“It is absurd that for this serious radiation incident the radiation exposure of the civilian workforce has simply been brushed over and not properly reported at all.”
The MoD stressed that none of the events mentioned in its report caused any harm to the health of any member of staff at Faslane, or to any member of the public.
Nuclear safety incidents at HMNB Clyde
year / nuclear safety event reports
2008-09 / 71
2009-10 / 61
2010-11 / 57
2011-12 / 59
2012-13 / 68
Total / 316
Fires at HMNB Clyde
year / fire alarms / false alarms / fires
2008-09 / 399 / 386 / 13
2009-10 / 483 / 467 / 16
2010-11 / 360 / 345 / 15
2011-12 / 397 / 382 / 15
2012-13 / 405 / 393 / 12
Totals / 2,044 / 1,973 / 71
Industrial accidents that nearly happened
year / safety incidents reported as “near misses”
2009-10 / 608
2010-11 / 768
2011-12 / 724
2012-13 / 1,143
Total / 3,243
source: Ministry of Defence
The four reports released by the Ministry of Defence can be downloaded below: