Safety improvements ordered at Devonport nuclear dockyard after worker is contaminated

The government's nuclear safety watchdog has ordered the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine base at Devonport in Plymouth to improve safety after a string of incidents.

The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has served the base with a legal enforcement notice following an accident which resulted in a worker receiving an internal dose of radioactivity. ONR has also disclosed details of five further incidents in which safety rules were broken at the dockyard, and has described safety reporting procedures at the dockyard as “significantly below standard”.

HM Naval Base Devonport is currently the home port for the Navy's Trafalgar class nuclear powered submarines, and undertakes maintenance and refit work on all the Navy's nuclear submarines. Unlike most other nuclear facilities in the UK, the dockyard is located within a major urban area.

The base was placed under 'special measures' by ONR in 2013, and is currently subject to “an enhanced level of regulatory attention” from the regulator.  ONR said that it had “previously engaged with the duty holder to facilitate safety improvements” but that “further action” was now required to “bring the arrangements up to an acceptable standard”.  

Devonport Royal Devonport Ltd, a subsidiary of Babcock International Group which is contracted to operate the naval base, has now been ordered to submit a programme of work to ONR and provide regular updates and evidence to demonstrate that improvements have been made by the end of January 2016.

Details of the accident which resulted in the worker receiving a radiation dose were not released by ONR, although the regulator said that the dose was “small”. ONR said it “highlighted shortfalls in the health and safety arrangements for working with ionising radiations at Devonport Royal Dockyard”. In addition, “the requirement to report incidents as required by site licence conditions is currently not being achieved” at Devonport.

The regulator's latest quarterly report for Devonport outlines a number of further safety concerns at the dockyard:


  • Radioactive coolant was mistakenly discharged into a submarine reactor compartment when a sampling valve was incorrectly operated.
  • Torpedo tubes on a docked submarine were found to be "configured in contravention of safety instructions aimed at keeping the boat watertight”, creating a risk of the submarine flooding in the event of an unintended dock flooding.
  • Safety maintenance of a dockside crane was delayed beyond the "maximum tolerance date".
  • A forklift truck carrying oil gained "unauthorised access" to a dock.
  • A nuclear evacuation alarm was tested "at the wrong time" because the clock on the system had not been reset at the end of British Summer Time.
  • There were "shortfalls in the operation of the emergency monitoring vehicles" during a nuclear submarine accident exercise.


Babcock said in a statement: "Improvements relating to the ONR enforcement notice and other recently reported incidents at Devonport Royal Dockyard are being addressed through a broader nuclear safety improvement programme to further enhance our current high levels of safety, in agreement with ONR."

The Ministry of Defence said: "Safety at HM Naval Base Devonport, as with all Ministry of Defence sites, is of paramount importance. Thorough investigations into these events were carried out and, where necessary, measures were immediately put in place to prevent them from happening again."

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