By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor Sunday Herald
A series of safety lapses at the Faslane nuclear submarine base on the Clyde, including one in which workers were over-exposed to radiation from a
reactor, has worried government inspectors. Internal documents obtained by the Sunday Herald reveal that the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has been concerned about poor supervision at the base and is monitoring the situation.
The inspectorate’s governing body, the Health and Safety Executive, has also expressed frustration at the failure of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to respond to repeated requests for information.
Concern was sparked by a hitherto unreported incident on 13 January last year, when workers were called in to remove scaffolding from above a submarine reactor. They were not told, however, that the reactor was “hot” as it had been conducting high-power trials prior to sailing.
As a result, four workers were exposed to excess radiation beaming through by Faslane health monitors, who conducted a survey which detected “a measurable dose” of radiation.
“This event seems to be the latest in a series of similar oversights and omissions relating to the control of work within the Clyde naval base,” a nuclear inspector told the base commander.
In a file note, he added: “My concern is that the interface between ships’ staff and base staff does not seem to be effective. There is a fundamentalissue here.”
An investigation was launched by the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Naval Nuclear Regulatory Panel. It is understood to have found that safety guidelines were breached.
The MoD was accused of showing a “callous disregard for health and safety” by John Ainslie, the co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. “They are willing to put the health of sailors and civilian workers at risk in order to keep Trident and other nuclear submarines at sea,” he claimed.
Ainslie pointed out that the legal powers of inspectors at military sites such as Faslane were weaker than at civilian nuclear sites . “Next time the consequences of a mistake could be far more serious,” he warned.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) confirmed details of the reactor incident. But a spokesman pointed out that the radiation dose received by the workers was less than 1% of the legal limit for a year.
“HSE is working closely with the Naval Nuclear Regulatory Panel in monitoring improvements to the arrangements for control and supervision of work at the Faslane site,” he said.
A spokesman for Faslane was unable to comment on the incident as it was the subject of a request under the Freedom of Information Act. “We take health and safety extremely seriously,” he said. “It’s a number one priority.”
Some internal documents concerning the incident were released by the HSE in response to the FoI request by the Sunday Herald. But the name of the ship involved has been blacked out, making it impossible to know whether it was a submarine carrying conventional wea pons or one carrying Trident nuclear warheads. Both are powered by reactors.
Other documents were withheld because the MoD failed to give the HSE any information on their national security status. One is the report of the MoD’s official investigation into the reactor incident. “The situation has been most frustrating,” an HSE official told the Sunday Herald. “Despite numerous reminders, I have not received any advice from the MoD.”
The MoD, however, pointed out that it was assessing the public interest, which involved consulting with commercial companies. “The delays are very much regretted,” said Gavin Findlay, Faslane’s head of corporate business support.