Ministry of Defence censors nuclear safety reports

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The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has withheld information on its nuclear safety record from its annual safety reports for the last two years, claiming that to release them would endanger national security. The reports cover the financial years 2015/16 and 2016/17, and summarise the MOD’s safety record across a number of different areas, including nuclear. While some MoD nuclear sites are regulated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the UK’s nuclear weapons themselves and nuclear submarine reactors are instead regulated by an internal branch of the MoD, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR).

The MoD has released DNSR’s annual reports since 2007, when it began doing so in order to avoid a freedom of information (FOI) tribunal hearing brought by the journalist Rob Edwards. In 2015 the DNSR was brought together with several other internal MoD safety bodies to form the Defence Safety Authority (DSA). From that time the DNSR annual report was summarised alongside assessments of the safety record in other areas of MoD activity. Each domain is given a Safety Assurance statement, where the level of safety assurance is rated either ‘substantial’, ‘limited’ or ‘none’. These cover both the safety standards in that domain and the capacity of the MoD’s internal regulator to provide that assurance. In the 2016/17 DSA report a separate assessment is made for each of these two aspects.

In November 2017 the DSA published their safety assurance reports for 2015/16 and 2016/17 with information relating to nuclear safety redacted. In 2015/16 the entire section dealing with nuclear is redacted, along with the nuclear safety assurance statement and any other parts of the document dealing with nuclear matters. The nuclear section in the 2016/17 report is relegated to an annex, which is redacted in full. There is no mention of nuclear matters in the main body of the report and the nuclear domain is missing from the list of safety assurance statements.

In response to a series of parliamentary questions later that month the government confirmed that “[t]he Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator Annual Assurance Reports for the periods 2015-16 and 2016-17 will not be published as it has been assessed to do so would impact national security.” The response said that overall “the Defence Nuclear Programme achieves the required standards of nuclear and radiological safety” and that “Nuclear safety has not been compromised.” The response did not make any reference to the safety assurance assessment, the standard by which nuclear safety has been assessed in previous years.

In the 2014/15 DSA report the main issue highlighted in the nuclear domain was retaining Suitably Qualified Experienced Personnel (SQEP), including staff to work as nuclear regulators for the DNSR. As the 2015/16 report contains substantial redactions in the section dealing with a shortfall in suitably qualified staff, it is likely that this issue continues to be a factor in driving safety concerns in the MoD’s nuclear operation and their ability to regulate themselves.