Independent report highlights risks of nuclear powered submarine visits to Southampton

VIDEO: Independent nuclear engineer John Large discusses shortfalls in emergency arrangements for nuclear powered submarines visiting Southampton.

Emergency arrangements for an accident on board a nuclear powered submarine visiting Southampton have been slammed as inadequate and inconsistent by an independent nuclear expert.

A damning report highlighting a catalogue of contradictions, missing information, and under-assessment of the impacts of a nuclear emergency in the port has been prepared by consultants Large and Associates for local environmental group Solent Coalition Against Nuclear Ships (SCANS).

Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines regularly visit an 'operational berth' at Southampton Eastern Docks, located in the heart of a city with a population of a quarter of a million.  Last week the City Council agreed to adopt HMS Artful, a nuclear powered submarine currently under construction, which is expected to visit the City after having been commissioned into service in 2012.

However, a review of official and previously classified documents released under the Freedom of Information Act raises serious concerns as to whether emergency services would be able to cope in the event of a nuclear accident on board a submarine berthed in the city.

The review was undertaken by John Large, an independent consulting engineer who was involved in assessing nuclear reactor repairs to damaged Royal Navy submarine HMS Tireless on behalf of the Government of Gibraltar and who headed up the nuclear risk assessment team throughout the salvage of the sunken Russian Federation nuclear submarine Kursk.  The conclusions are based on a painstaking study of documentation obtained from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and other public bodies following a series of over 50 detailed requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The released documents reveal a series of major shortfalls in emergency planning for an accident on board a nuclear submarine visiting Southampton, including:

  • The MoD's Hazard Identification and Risk Evaluation (HIRE) for submarine visits ignores key accident scenarios, including malicious acts such as sabotage and acts of terrorism and events external to the submarine's nuclear reactor, such as a fire or explosion of weapons on board the submarine or an aircraft crash.
  • The MoD's own nuclear safety regulator and the Navy Command submarine operator have been unable to agree over the severity of the 'reference accident' which emergency arrangements are designed to cope with.
  • The Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Directorate, the civil regulator responsible for nuclear safety, has because of other work priorities failed to undertake any independent review of the submarine berth safety assessment for Southampton.
  • Highlighted are concerns by the MoD's internal nuclear regulator, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), that the Southampton berth safety assessment is 'inadequate, unsourced and trivial' with 'particularly weak' conclusions which 'do not fully provide the level of safety substantiation provided'.  The assessment is criticised for being based on population data nearly twenty years out of date derived from the 1991 census; failing to deconflict submarine movements with cruise liner dockings, ferry movements, and other civil shipping movements in Southampton Water; and presenting a 'trivial and unsourced' discussion of fire hazards.  However, despite ordering a regulatory requirement for improvements to be made by 2011, DNSR has done nothing to suspend submarine visits to Southampton until these crucial nuclear safety issues have been resolved.
  • Key emergency responders including police, ambulance crews, and Council employees would have to be immediately withdrawn from the vicinity of a submarine following an accident because they have not been trained or registered to deal with radiation exposure.  Even firefighters would only be allowed to remain in contaminated areas for a limited time before being exposed to maximum dose limits.  The report concludes that “without these key personnel the whole Sotonsafe plan would become under-resourced and then likely collapse into chaos".
  • Analysis of a recent exercise simulating an accident on board an Astute class nuclear submarine at Barrow-in-Furness concluded that, if a similar scenario arose in Southampton, about 800 users of the National Oceanography Centre Southampton and another 300 – 400 employees in the Eastern Dock area could run the risk of exposure to unacceptable levels of radiation.  Firefighters would face exposure to radiation doses over seven times the maximum limit, forcing their early evacuation from the emergency zone and leaving the emergency response critically under-resourced.

The report by Large and Associates concludes that “These inconsistencies, differences and failure to take on responsibilities singly and in combination are likely to have a degrading effect on the appropriateness and adequacy of the REPPIR off-site emergency arrangements for Southampton” and describes City Council proposals to reduce the size of the pre-planned emergency planning zone surrounding the submarine berth from a 2 kilometre to 1.5 kilometre radius as “a substantial and unjustified change”.

Report author John Large said: "These Freedom of Information requests have peeled back the thin veneer of false confidence underpinning the MoD's safety case for the Southampton berth”.

“They revealed fundamental errors in the safety calculation of risk of a nuclear accident; strong disagreements between the MoD's own nuclear safety regulator and the Navy Command submarine operator; and entirely inadequate or missing analysis of safety issues relevant to Southampton”.

“If the Navy cannot agree on the risk and severity of accidents to its nuclear submarines, how on its part can Southampton City Council be expected to prepare an adequate emergency response?"

David Hoadley, Chair of Solent Coaliton Against Nuclear Ships (SCANS) said:  “This analysis clearly shows that the safety arrangements for nuclear submarines visiting Southampton docks are not fit for purpose”.  

“Visits by nuclear submarines to Southampton serve no military purpose whatsoever yet they expose local people to wholly unnecessary and unjustifiable risks”.

“The Council should say no to all future submarine visits and stop wasting time and money on these pointless PR schemes for the Navy at a time when vital local services are being cut because of a lack of resources.”

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