NIS Update: October 2011


The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced that a 16 week period of public consultation on options for its Submarine Dismantling Project will commence on Friday 28 October 2011.

The Submarine Dismantling Project aims to find a solution to the problems of disposing of the Royal Navy's redundant nuclear submarines, which are contaminated with radioactive waste.  The consultation exercise will seek views on a number of key issues relating to the project: how the radioactive materials should be removed from the submarines; where this should take place; and which type of site should be used for interim storage of the intermediate level radioactive waste generated following submarine dismantling.  

MoD has already announced that its preferred candidate sites for where radioactive waste will be removed from submarines are Devonport and Rosyth dockyards, or a combination of the two.  Decisions about the location for interim storage of the radioactive waste produced by the dismantling process will be the subject of a further consultation process in due course.

Comments will also be invited on the findings of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and the draft Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) for the project, and on the project more generally.

There will be a particular focus on consultation in the Plymouth and Rosyth areas and in the neighbouring areas of Saltash, Torpoint and Edinburgh, and two national workshops have been arranged for 31 January 2012 in Birmingham and 6 February 2012 in Glasgow.  To book a place at one of these events please contact the MoD's project team.

Consultation documents, including the SEA and HRA reports and supporting documents, will be published on the Submarine Dismantling Project web site at the start of the consultation period.

The Nuclear Submarine Forum (NSubF), representing a number of local groups from all parts of the UK which are stakeholders in nuclear submarine dismantlement, is supporting the consultation and encouraging all who may be affected by the submarine dismantling proposals to take the opportunity to have their say.


Efforts by Ministers to reduce overspending on the defence equipment budget could be capsized by the programme to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system, according to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

A new report by RUSI analyst Malcolm Chalmers concludes that the MoD appears to have taken the steps needed to cut defence spending by 8% to meet its spending target, and to fend off an immediate budget crisis.  However, “hard battles remain to be fought in order to achieve projected levels of saving”.

The report warns of the risk that the MoD's plans could be blown off course if the cost of major projects increases more sharply than planned.  The three projects with the largest budgets over the next decade pose particular risks: the Trident replacement project, plans to purchase new Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, and the Navy's Type 26 frigate project.

“The costs of major projects remain a major source of potential instability, with particular concerns over the looming costs of Trident renewal”, writes Chalmers.

“The largest, and politically most difficult, procurement programme over the next two decades will be the construction of a successor to the Trident nuclear deterrent submarines.  The MoD is due to spend £7 billion over the decade to 2020 on the initial concept, design and development phases of this project, equivalent to around 11 per cent of the new equipment budget over the decade from 2011/12 to 2020/21”.

Spending on the Trident replacement programme is expected to peak in around 2021/22 or 2022/23, when it will consume around 30% of the defence equipment budget, remaining close to this level until after the first submarine is delivered in around 2028.  Unless defence budgets are increased significantly, “nondeterrent new equipment spending will therefore have to fall back sharply after 2020” as a consequence of the high levels of spending on Trident replacement.

The report states that the level of spending on the Trident successor from 2021/22 onwards may oblige the Government to accept a substantial reduction in the number of new Type 26 conventional warships for the Royal Navy.

Despite the difficulties in funding the MOD's equipment programme, the report points out that the UK is one of only five NATO countries which meet the Alliance’s target for member states to spend more than 2 per cent of their national income on defence, and that even after planned spending cuts have been fully implemented, the nation is still on course to be spending 2.15 per cent of GDP on defence in 2014/15.


A review of nuclear safety in the UK conducted by the Office for Nuclear Regulation has made 38 recommendations for improving nuclear safety following the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan.

The review, conducted by Mike Weightman, ONR's Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations, identified a number of areas where action is needed to address potential risks, including reliance on off-site infrastructure such as the electrical grid supply in extreme events, emergency response arrangements, layout of plant,  protection against flooding, and planning controls around nuclear facilities.

Weightman's review concluded that the UK's nuclear industry is broadly safe, with "no fundamental safety weaknesses", and will be “even safer” when the report's recommendations have been implemented.

The review was requested by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, days after the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March that led to the crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station.  A report will be published next year on progress in implementing the review's recommendations and lessons.


The Ministry of Defence has published a nuclear liabilities management strategy outlining how it intends to manage its radioactively contaminated legacies and wastes.

MoD’s nuclear liabilities have arisen from building and operating nuclear submarines and from the manufacture and management of nuclear weapons. The strategy addresses four types of liability category: nuclear materials that are no longer required; irradiated fuel that has fulfilled its purpose; sites, facilities, and submarines; and the resulting radioactive wastes, and outlines broad 'enablers' which will be important considerations in dealing with these liabilities.

It acknowledges that it is currently not possible to have a complete strategy for some of the MoD's nuclear liabilities and that decisions will be shaped by the future development of waste storage and disposal methods.  The strategy is intended to evolve over time and a updated version will be published every five years to report on progress which has been made.

No time scales are given for the task of cleaning up and disposing of the MoD's radioactive legacy and the report states that “we do not currently foresee an end to the provision of a strategic nuclear defence capability”, indicating that a firm programme for tackling the MoD's nuclear liabilities lies far in the future.

The strategy is also uncosted, giving no figures for disposing of the MoD's nuclear liabilities, although the MoD Annual Report and Accounts for 2010-2011 state that the latest estimate of the undiscounted costs of dealing with the MoD’s nuclear liabilities is currently £10.1 billion.

The strategy states that “Classification of all the MoD’s nuclear liabilities as radioactive waste and permanently disposing of them is not always the preferred solution, as some of the liabilities include valuable materials or materials that may be regarded as valuable in the future”, hinting that the government's preference may be to reprocess some types of waste for use as nuclear fuels in the future, rather than dispose of them permanently.

The strategy report acknowledges that “Site plans have the potential to affect local communities and the MoD understands the importance of engagement with local authorities and communities”, but falls short of giving a commitment to consult local communities on legacy issues or consider community acceptance as a key factor when choosing future management options.

Publication of the strategy has been long awaited, and the lack of a strategy for dealing with the MoD's nuclear legacy until now has been highlighted as a key risk by the MoD's Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board, which is responsible for reporting on the MoD's nuclear safety performance at the highest level.  


A fifth of medical assistants serving on board the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines have been issued with redundancy notices, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph.

According to the Telegraph, between 15 and 25 out of 100 deployable medical assistants have been sacked, despite shortages in the number of submarine medics and promises that no-one from the Submarine Service would be made redundant during the current round of service personnel cuts.  Among those receiving compulsory redundancy notices was the assistant who cared for the wounded on board HMS Astute after a crew member ran amok and shot colleagues during a visit to Southampton.

Medical Assistants (Submariners) provide medical care to crew members when submarines are at sea and also play a key radiological safety role.  They are responsible for undertaking radiation checks and providing specialist medical support in the event of a radiological incident, and their role is said to be so important that a Vanguard class submarine is not permitted to set sail if there are less than two medical assistants aboard.  The assistants receive two years intensive training, including NHS placements, and train intensively on dealing with radiological illness and exposure.

The Navy and MoD are experiencing severe difficulties in recruiting and retaining suitably qualified and experienced personnel to run the UK's military nuclear programme.  Staffing of suitable personnel has been highlighted as a significant safety risk for a number of years in annual reports prepared by the Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board.

A Royal Navy press officer said: "There will be no shortage of medical personnel on our submarines. Redundancies are only being made in surplus areas."


The Royal Society has published a new report about the relationship between civil nuclear power and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  The report, 'Fuel cycle stewardship in a nuclear renaissance', identifies best practices to make the nuclear fuel cycle more secure and proliferation resistant, with a particular focus on the management of spent fuel.

Among other recommendations, the report highlights the need for nuclear safeguarding to remain a research and development priority and the need for strategic planning from cradle to grave during the fuel cycle, so that the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste is no longer an afterthought.

Controversially, the report recommends that a new mixed oxide reprocessing plant should be built to convert the UK's civil stocks of plutonium into fuel for a new generation of light water reactors, despite the economic and technical failure of the UK's previous attempt to produce mixed oxide fuel at the recently closed Sellafield Mox Plant.  At 112 tonnes, the UK's plutonium stockpile is the largest in the world and poses a liability in efforts to prevent misuse and negotiate curbs on the spread of sensitive materials,

The report notes that the majority of the UK's expertise in nuclear threat reduction resides in the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), and recommends that AWE's threat reduction research should continue to be well supported.  It calls for AWE's National Nuclear Security Division to be developed to allow the wider scientific community, including international partners, to share expertise in this field in a non-classified environment.



The Ministry of Defence has indicated that two further planning applications are to be submitted to West Berkshire Council for major developments at Atomic Weapons Establishment sites.

The first application, expected to be submitted between October 2011 and March 2012, is for a Technology Development Centre at AWE Aldermaston as part of the Anglo-French 'Teutates' hydrodynamics research programme.

The Technology Development Centre will be built instead of Project Hydrus, the hydrodynamics research facility planned for Aldermaston which was cancelled shortly after receiving planning permission last year when the UK and France signed a joint treaty to construct a shared research facility.  According to the Miistry of Defence's Annual Report and Accounts for last year, a sum of £120 million has been written off for Project Hydrus.

The second planning application is for a flood alleviation scheme at AWE Burghfield, which will be submitted to West Berkshire within the period January 2012 to June 2012.  AWE Burghfield is in a flood risk zone and was struck by serious flooding in July 2007 which resulted in production being suspended for nine months.


A submission to the Weightman review from the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) reveals that flooding or an earthquake could result in a release of radioactive material from AWE sites.  In a 40-page report on the status of its facilities, AWE  indicated that some of the operations carried out at its Aldermaston and Burghfield sites were vulnerable to flooding or seismic damage. 

The AWE report states that "some containment may be vulnerable to flooding in which case some limited spread of radiological contamination could occur". This would be "a minor consequence event". It also states that "some containment (process and structures) may be vulnerable to damage from a seismic event. There could be particulate release as a result of loss of containment or fire."

The AWE submission also reveals that AWE sites remain dependent on an electricity supply from the National Grid in the event of emergencies, despite the near loss of power to AWE sites during serious flooding in 2007.  As a result of a company review, "the on-site electricity distribution system is to be enhanced over the coming year", AWE said. "This enhancement will remove any nuclear safety dependency on the national grid."


The Environment Agency has issued a variation to AWE's permit to dispose of radioactive waste from operations at Burghfield.  The variation is a minor one, adding a route to transfer waste contaminated with tritium, generated from monitoring of tritium levels, from Burghfield to Aldermaston.  The waste will be disposed of by off-site incineration alongside similar wastes generated at Aldermaston. 


The Food Standards Agency (FSA), working with the Environment Agency and Office for Nuclear Regulation, has commissioned survey work in the area surrounding AWE Aldermaston and AWE Burghfield to establish the sources of food eaten by members of the public living in the area.

The survey results will be used to test the assumptions used by the FSA in its assessments of the impacts of radioactivity discharged into the environment by AWE, and the likely radioactive doses experienced by local people who eat locally produced food.  Similar surveys take place at regular intervals around all nuclear licensed sites in the UK.

The survey work took place in September 2011 and was conducted on behalf of the FSA by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture (CEFAS).


AWE has published its Environment, Safety, and Health report for the period February 2011 to April 2011 on its website.  The report lists the following incidents as key abnormal events which occurred during the reporting period:

  • A pH level of 12 was recorded in Outfall 2 at Burghfield exceeding the consented range of pH 6 – 9.  The incident was subject to a warning letter from the Environment Agency.
  • A lead acid battery exploded as a result of using the wrong type of battery charger.
  • Flammable substances associated with a process exceeded the local limit and thus required a Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations assessment.
  • During maintenance of an electrical distribution board, Earth cables were discovered to be connected into the Neutral terminal bar.
  • Bolts securing the interlock armature to the LASER hall airlock door had been removed so that the door was reporting closed to the Facility Security System.
  • A movement control error could have resulted in unauthorised access to a Special Nuclear Material safe.
  • Radioactive (Tritium) contaminated chiller fluid spilled onto the floor of an air handling unit.
  • Five litres of radioactive effluent were released to the ground when two flanges leaked during a “road tanker” operation.
  • A hydrogen cyanide gas monitor sounded due to a small release of hydrogen cyanide following maintenance on a pump.
  • A small chlorine leak was discovered at pressure regulator gauge.
  • A steam main pipe to a facility compound suffered water hammer resulting in a significant steam leak requiring immediate isolation of the steam main. 

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