Staffing and organisational change highlighted as key challenges to MoD nuclear safety

Staffing issues and organisational change remain the biggest safety challenges to the UK's military nuclear programme according to a report published by an internal Ministry of Defence (MoD) safety regulator.

MoD's ability to sustain a sufficient number of competent nuclear-skilled personnel is “a long standing issue” and remains “the principal threat to the maintenance of safety in the defence nuclear programme”, whilst “continued Duty Holder involvement is required to ensure that organisation capability remains robust” in the face of significant changes to the way MoD activities are organised and managed.

The two issues will require “sustained attention” over the medium to long term to ensure safe delivery of the defence nuclear programme, according to the annual report of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) for 2013-14.

The report identified a total of eight key issues where improvements are required.  Ageing plant, facilities and infrastructure, safety management arrangements, quality of product, transport and nuclear packaging approval, MoD's nuclear liabilities, and the progress in addressing issues identified following the 2011 Fukushima disaster were named as lower priority concerns, but where action is nevertheless necessary.
Staffing was identified as a 'Priority 1' safety issue for the MoD's nuclear programme, requiring “significant and sustained” attention to ensure that a satisfactory safety performance is maintained.  MoD's ability to retain a sufficient number of military and civilian nuclear skilled and equipped personnel has been a concern for DNSR since 2006 as a result of competition from the civil nuclear sector and an ageing workforce.  The sustainability of MoD's nuclear skill set is
described as “fragile”, and although DNSR says that safety has not yet been compromised, “the loss of resilience increases the likelihood of project delays”.  There is “as yet, little direct evidence of improvement” and it is expected that advances will only be made “over a number of years”.

Organisational change was considered to be a Priority 2 risk, where “attention is required to ensure maintenance of satisfactory safety performance”.  Although the risk has reduced from last year, DNSR concluded that further effort is necessary “to ensure that organisation capability remains robust” and ensure that changes to organisational arrangements are assessed for their impact on safety. In some cases “baselines are not sufficiently robust to respond to shocks and sustain programme developments” and although safety has not been compromised slippage in the delivery of work programmes has occurred.

Ageing plant, facilities, and infrastructure within the MoD's nuclear programme is another long-standing concern to DNSR.  The report contains a rare admission that, because of delays in the construction and commissioning of Astute class submarines, there has been a requirement to extend Trafalgar class submarines beyond their original design life to maintain the Navy's submarine fleet capability.  Vanguard class Trident nuclear weapon submarines are also undergoing a plant lifetime extension programme as a result of the 2010 decision to extend the life of the submarines and delay the Successor submarine construction programme.  In general DNSR remains content with these arrangements, but warns that “commitment and attention is required to safely manage ageing plant, facilities and infrastructure across the DNP”.

The report also highlights the need to improve nuclear safety cases and safety management arrangements, with the quality and timely delivery of safety cases requiring “continued attention” and safety challenge arrangements described as “variable”.  Quality of product and control of work required “continued, robust and timely” attention, with DNSR noting that “it is only through rapid reporting of the lessons from events that learning can be delivered”.  

Over the year there was also “a backdrop of concerns” regarding the continued sustainment of suitably skilled nuclear weapon personnel and the development of appropriate organisational baselines across the nuclear weapons programme, at a time when the Office for Nuclear Regulation had identified the Atomic Weapons Establishment as requiring enhanced levels of regulatory attention.

As part of the Ministry of Defence, DNSR has been criticised for a lack of effectiveness and for being secretive and opaque in contrast with civilian nuclear regulators such as the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency.  The report states that DNSR is “seeking to develop its approach to openness and transparency” but qualifies this by saying that “a careful balance must be struck in Defence with the need to protect national security and international relations”.  

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