Babcock submarine repairs: two electrical safety failures in two months

HMS Vengeance at 9 Dock in Devonport

In August and September 2021 Babcock was responsible for two electrical safety failures during repair work on Vanguard submarines. In June 2022 the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) announced that Babcock Marine Ltd. had been issued with an improvement notice after an electrical overload incident at the Faslane nuclear base, Scotland on 5th August 2021. This follows an improvement notice that was issued to Devonport Royal Dockyard Ltd. (DRDL) in September 2021, after a worker experienced an electric shock that month. Babcock Marine Ltd. and DRDL are both subsidiaries of Babcock International.

Both incidents occurred during maintenance on Vanguard-class submarines. HMS Vanguard was undergoing deep maintenance at 9 Dock in Devonport until July 2022, almost three years longer than the work was expected to take. The electrical shock was said to have occurred during “routine maintenance work” and the worker in question was not injured. Devonport suspended electrical work on the submarine.

Babcock are also responsible for ongoing maintenance of the three Vanguard submarines at Faslane. It is widely understood that the maintenance needs of the fleet are increasing as they age. In 2020 the Times reported that one of these three submarines, which are all supposed to be kept available for patrols, had been kept out of the water for a year for maintenance.

The submarine where the electrical overload occurred was not disclosed. The incident was said to have taken place during ‘routine battery replacement work’ while the submarine was in dock.

ONR’s investigation into the overload incident concluded that Babcock had broken its legal requirements by not taking sufficient reasonable steps to keep its workers safe during battery replacement work. Although Faslane is a Crown-owned site and does not need a nuclear license to operate, ONR is responsible for overseeing conventional health and safety at both Faslane and Coulport.

Under the improvement notice issued for the electric shock incident at Devonport, Babcock was ordered to put in place interim measures to control electrical work on HMS Vanguard and enact long-term safety improvements on site. In October 2022 ONR announced that the improvement notice, which had been intended to run until December that year had been extended to June 2023. Bruce Archer, Head of the ONR’s Propulsion Sub-Division, said that DRDL was operating safely after its suspension of electrical work and the additional time to demonstrate the necessary improvements “will not pose a risk to the safety of the workers or the public.”

In August 2019 DRDL was fined £666,667 plus costs for breaches of crane regulations. The Devonport site remains under enhanced regulatory attention and progress on a plan to return it to routine attention was described by the Chief Nuclear Inspector as “varied”.

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