Emergency services could not cope with nuclear submarine accident

An independent nuclear expert has cast doubt about the ability of emergency services to cope with an accident involving a release of radiation from one of the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines when berthed in Southampton Docks.

John Large, who headed the team assessing nuclear and radiation hazards during the salvage of the sunken Russian submarine Kursk, told a public meeting organised by Southampton City Council that staff from the Fire and Rescue Service, Ambulance Service, and Police would be unable to deal with an emergency involving a nuclear submarine without breaching limits for doses of radiation to individual personnel.  

“To the extend that their dose limitation system permits their attendance firefighters will remain in attendance but others, most probably the ambulance trust personnel, more than likely police officers, and most certainly City Council employees will all have to withdraw from the coutermeasures zone”, he said.

According to Mr Large, the emergency would have to be tackled by “just a few watches of brave firefighters eking out their individual does exposures and whatever MoD personnel can be corralled into service”.  

Ministry of Defence representatives present at the meeting stated that Naval support staff present while a submarine was berthed in Southampton would be able to cope with any incident, but Mr Large replied that this was only likely to be the case if the minimal accident scenario adopted by the Royal Navy for emergency planning purposes happened, and not if credible accidents which were more serious than the Navy's scenario occurred.

The Navy has refused to release detailed information on submarine accident severity, the type of accident and timescales involved, and dose contour information about the spread of radioactivity following an accident, claiming that they contain classified information which cannot be disclosed to the public.

Mr Large also pointed out that the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which regulates the civil nuclear industry, cannot act as an independent scrutineer of the Navy's safety arrangements as its inspectors do not have access to the necessary information about submarine reactor plant technology, which is top secret.  No representatives from the NII were present at the meeting to defend the Inspectorate's position.

New reactors designed for the Navy's Astute class submarines have a greater fuel mass, higher fuel burn-up rate, and longer lifetime than the current generation of submarine reactor, meaning that they will produce a greater and more complex inventory of radioactive fission products.  According to Mr Large, this means that the safety countermeasures zone surrounding a  berthed submarine should be increased to cope with the new generation of submarines.  Instead, Southampton City Council intends to reduce the size of the countermeasures zone surrounding the berth site in Southampton Docks from a radius of 2 km to 1.5km.

The public meeting also heard that no arrangements have been made to provide transport to evacuate personnel from the Eastern Docks in the event of a nuclear emergency on board a submarine berthed in the docks.  It is a common licence condition for civil nuclear sites that a number of coaches should always be stationed on site ready to evacuate personnel rapidly in the event of an accident. 

Several hundred people are believed to work in the Eastern Docks area, including Associated British Ports staff and staff at the adjacent National Oceanography Centre.   When it was pointed out that evacuees would have to walk 1.5 km to reach safety through a zone where the public had been instructed to take shelter indoors to protect themselves from the effects of radiation, council officers suggested that they could catch one of the regular buses into town to escape from the dockyard.

The 'Port of Southampton Nuclear Submarine Berth Offsite Plan – 'Sotonsafe'  public meeting took place at the Southampton Civic Centre on 4th November 2009.  The meeting is an annual event where members of the public have the opportunity to question representatives of statutory agencies about the 'Sotonsafe' emergency plan which would be used in the event of an emergency involving a nuclear submarine in Southampton.

For a full set of technical papers about the adequacy of the 'Sotonsafe' emergency arrangements please visit the Large and Associates website.

You can download John Large's report to the 4th November 2009 public meeting here:


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