Safety risks reach red at Ministry of Defence

Navy's submarine reactors do not meet civilian safety standards

Navy's submarine reactors do not meet civilian safety standards

Top-level Ministry of Defence (MoD) reports from the Admirals responsible for the UK's military nuclear safety reveal that a lack of adequate and resources and suitably competent staff may place safety and the environment at risk in the medium term.

The annual Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board reports for 2008 and 2009, released in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, highlight the risks that under-resourcing poses to the safety of the MoD's nuclear weapons and nuclear submarine propulsion programmes during a period when public spending is facing deep cuts.

Although the reports conclude that the MoD has maintained an acceptable standard of nuclear and radiological safety, they warn of “potentially significant risks” to the MoD's nuclear programmes.     Performance “continues to need improvement” in a number of areas but “this will not be easy within defence resources”.

The report for 2008 identifies the maintenance of a sustainable cadre of suitably qualified and experienced staff as “the principal threat to safety performance in the medium term”, and rates staffing issues as a 'red risk' issue for the Ministry.   The chairman of the safety board warned that: “Measures in hand may be insufficient to address the present and predicted shortage of NSQEP [nuclear suitably qualified and experienced personnel] in the Navy, among MoD civilians, and in defence contractors”, with the situation “becoming more difficult and biting sooner than previously anticipated”.   People shortages were identified as the top Navy Command risk to delivery of the submarine programme, and despite special recruitment and retention measures, “the situation remains critical over the medium term”, with the impact being a potential loss of availability of submarines for service.

By 2009 this issue had been joined in the highest risk category by a “lack of adequate resources to deliver (and regulate) the defence nuclear programmes safely.”  Some areas “were barely resourced to deliver their outputs (including safety)” and the resilience of the Navy's submarine enterprise was “under threat”.  The chairman of the safety board concluded: “Because of the widely recognised overheat of the defence budget (notwithstanding initial protection for nuclear programmes) and problems for public sector funding caused by the financial crisis, the status of this Issue has been raised to Red”.

Annual safety reports from previous years
had raised similar concerns, but the issues have increased in urgency and become more acute as time progresses and they remain unresolved.

Spills and accidents involving radioactive materials were also a problem, with the board stating that “there has been an increase in the number of events reported associated with failure to follow authorised procedures.  And there have been a number of unauthorised discharges of radioactive material to the environment which have resulted from failings in control of work”. 

The decommissioning of radioactively contaminated assets and redundant submarines was highlighted as a major issue in the long term.  At present “funding has not been allocated to achieve the developing Decommissioning & Disposal Strategy” - even though the MoD's Submarine Dismantling Project is currently consulting on arrangements for dismantling and storing waste from 27 defueled nuclear submarines.  The key challenge is identified as the allocation and defence of the funding needed to meet the MoD's nuclear liabilities.  Safety issues relating to plans to build a new class of nuclear submarines to replace the current Vanguard class submarines are discussed with no mention of the dangers in building a new set of vessels without knowing how to deal with radioactive wastes from previous generations of submarine.

The reports were released in response to a request for information made by Fred Dawson, the former head of the MoD's radiation protection policy team before he retired in 2009, who said: “These reports highlight the very serious resource and funding problems now faced by the MOD in the delivery of the nuclear propulsion and weapon programmes safely without unacceptable risk to workers the public and the environment.”

For more information please see press reports from the Guardian and Channel 4 News.