Staff shortages, organisational change, and ageing equipment – the main challenges to defence nuclear safety

A shortage of nuclear-skilled personnel and the rapid pace of organisational change within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) pose the greatest challenges to the safety of the UK's nuclear weapons and nuclear powered submarine programmes, according to the latest annual report of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR).

The report, prepared for the Permanent Under Secretary at the Ministry of Defence – the department's top civil servant – warns that the ability to retain a sufficient number of nuclear suitably competent personnel is “a long-standing issue” which comprises “the principal threat to safety in the DNP [defence nuclear programme] in the medium term”, while strategic organisational change could result in drastic changes to the way in which safety is managed across the programme, with potentially serious impacts.

The report highlights eight issues of concern including, for the first time, risks posed by ageing plant, facilities, and infrastructure – particularly the Royal Navy's ageing fleet of hunter-killer submarines.  However, DNSR concluded overall that “those responsible for delivering the DNP have maintained an adequate standard of nuclear and radiological safety for the submarine crews, the defence workforce, the public and the protection of the environment”.

The shortage of suitably qualified and experienced nuclear personnel was given a 'red (situation steady)' rating by the regulator, which warned that “safety has not been compromised, but the loss of resilience increases the likelihood of programme delays”.  Improvements in the position over the past year were described as “marginal”, with sustained improvement only likely to be delivered “over a number of years”.

The threat extends beyond MoD to the industrial contractors responsible for delivering programmes such as the construction of future nuclear powered submarines.  Recruitment and retention in core skills areas such as safety, propulsion engineering, and naval architecture is recognised as a “key challenge to meet future programme demands”.  Competition from the civil nuclear market will “continue to drive vulnerability in this small and highly skilled group”.

DNSR also gave a red rating to issues relating to strategic organisational change within the Ministry of Defence, which “has the potential to fundamentally re-shape the environment for safety delivery across the DNP”.

Worries were expressed over proposals for restructuring the Defence Equipment and Support organisation, which is responsible for all six of the nuclear Authorisees regulated by DNSR.  Current plans could see the organisation privatised under a government owned contractor operated (GOCO) arrangement.  MoD's Naval Base Transformation project was also flagged up as an area of concern, with the potential to affect the management of nuclear safety at HM Naval Base Clyde and HM Naval Base Devonport.  The report warns that “significant and sustained” attention will be necessary to ensure that adequate safety performance is maintained in the face of planned organisational changes within MoD.

The report also draws attention to difficulties in operating ageing submarines, facilities, and infrastructure.  As a result of delays in constructing Astute class submarines, the Navy has decided to retain five Trafalgar class hunter-killer submarines in service beyond their original design life, with some of the vessels now planned to remain in service for more than thirty years before they retire.     According to DNSR, “a number of emergent Trafalgar Class technical issues can be directly attributed to the effects of plant ageing”.   It is anticipated that plant ageing effects will also be seen in Vanguard class submarines following the Strategic Defence and Security Review decision to extend their life.

The report also notes that programme slippage has occurred in the Nuclear Warhead Capability sustainment Programme – the infrastructure construction programme currently underway at the Atomic Weapons Establishment.  As a result, existing facilities may be required to operate beyond their design life.  DNSR point out that, in some areas, “inspection programmes have not been as comprehensive as regulators would expect”, citing AWE's failure to identify corrosion in the structural supports of the A45 building at Aldermaston as an example.

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