Exclusive, 22 April 2015
The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has served the base with a legal enforcement notice to remedy flaws in the arrangements for protecting workers from radiation. It has also disclosed five incidents in which safety rules were broken between October and December last year, and described the procedures for reporting incidents as "significantly below standard".
Devonport is the largest naval base in Western Europe, and services Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet. One of the submarines usually armed with Trident nuclear missiles, HMS Vengeance, is currently being refitted there, with another, HMS Vanguard, due in next for maintenance.
Because of concerns over health and safety, the base has been given “an enhanced level of regulatory attention” by ONR since 2013. An incident last year in which a worker was contaminated with radioactivity prompted ONR to issue a statutory improvement notice in December.
Though the radiation dose the worker received was small, ONR said it “highlighted shortfalls in the health and safety arrangements for working with ionising radiations at Devonport Royal Dockyard”. The dockyard has been ordered “to bring the arrangements up to an acceptable standard” before the end of January 2016.
Five further safety breaches are outlined in the ONR’s latest quarterly report on Devonport. In October 2014 there were three incidents: radioactive coolant was mistakenly discharged into a submarine reactor compartment due to the "inadvertent operation of a valve”; a nuclear evacuation alarm was tested “at the wrong time”; and a forklift truck carrying oil gained "unauthorised access" to a dock.
In November the torpedo tubes on a docked submarine were found to be configured in contravention of safety instructions aimed at keeping the boat watertight. In December safety maintenance of a dockside crane was delayed beyond the “maximum tolerance date”.
According to ONR, “the requirement to report incidents as required by site licence conditions is currently not being achieved” at Devonport. The regulator also reported “shortfalls in the operation of the emergency monitoring vehicles” during an exercise to test the base’s response to a nuclear submarine accident.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was unable to comment because of the forthcoming general election. However, it has previously said that safety is of paramount importance at all its sites, and that it takes steps to deal with issues raised and puts measures in place to prevent recurrences.
Babcock, the company that operates Devonport Royal Dockyard for the MoD, stressed that it placed the highest priority on the safety of workers, the public and the environment. “Our Devonport site is necessarily a highly regulated site and in line with the guidance and expectations of our independent regulatory bodies we report all events and incidents across a very broad front,” said a company spokesman.
“We continually seek to learn from these events and incidents in accordance with sound safety management practices and we present our safety performance and improvement targets to members of the public every six months at open forums.”
But Peter Burt from the Nuclear Information Service, which is critical of nuclear policy, pointed out that Devonport maintained submarines next to a major urban area. “This makes it particularly worrying that ONR has had to take action against Babcock to pull up slack practice,” he said.
“The MoD must now set Babcock binding targets for improving the dockyard's nuclear safety performance, and if the company is unable to deliver the necessary improvements, the contract for operating the site should be handed over to more competent managers.”