Increase in number of nuclear safety incidents sparks concern over safety standards at Clyde submarine bases

The number of safety incidents recorded at the UK's Trident nuclear submarine and weapons bases on the Clyde estuary has shown a sharp increase according to internal Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents.

Figures presented in MoD annual health and safety reports show that over the last five years there have been 316 nuclear safety events, 2044 fire alarm incidents, and 71 fires at Her Majesty's Naval Base (HMNB) Clyde.

68 nuclear safety incidents took place in 2012-13 compared with 59 in 2011-12, according to statistics published in the reports – an increase of 15 per cent.  There were also more than 3000 'near miss' industrial accidents, a positive test for illegal drugs, and a series of difficulties with wild animals.

The figures are revealed in four MoD health and safety reports for HMNB Clyde covering the period 2009-10 to 2012-3 (available to download at the end of this article), which were not intentionally published by the MoD and were only made public following a request under the Freedom of Information Act made by journalist Rob Edwards.  The request, originally made in January, was not answered until October, giving rise to suspicions in some quarters that MoD deliberately delayed releasing controversial information until after the Scottish independence referendum had taken place.

Between 2011-12 and 2012-13 the number of incidents involving nuclear weapons rose from 7 to 11, while those involving submarine reactors rose from 52 to 57.  The 2012-13 report for the base highlights an “overall increase” in nuclear incidents, which was “reflected by a corresponding increase in the number of category D, category C and category B events.”  The report offered no explanation for the increase other than to comment that it was “counter to the general falling trend for annual figures that we have previously seen."

The most serious incident took place in August 2012, when a group of civilian workers were exposed to low doses of radiation when carrying out maintenance in a tank next to a live submarine reactor at the Faslane submarine base.   Proper radiation controls had not been put in place and risks to workers had not been adequately assessed before work began.

As a result of the incident the MoD received a reprimand from government safety regulators.  In April 2013 the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the MoD's Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator jointly issued a formal warning letter requiring improvements in the control of work near submarines at Faslane.

About half of the incidents recorded fell into category C", meaning that they had the potential to cause radioactive contamination. Most of the rest were defined as category D, meaning there was "no or little potential" for contamination.

3243 industrial health and safety incidents were reported as 'near misses' over the four year reporting period.  The number of incidents increased by more than 50% from 724 in 2011-12 to 1143 in 2012-13, although this is believed to have resulted from an increased awareness of the importance of reporting safety incidents.

The report for 2011-12 indicates that, during random tests of workers for alcohol and drugs, one test confirmed the presence of an illegal drug.  No information on drug testing is given for subsequent years.

The reports also mention a number of problems caused by wildlife at the Clyde bases, including an infestation of a submarine by red-rust flour beetles and the build up of guano from birds in working areas. Measures have been required to control populations of seagulls, pigeons, jackdaws, foxes and rats, and feral cats.

Independent nuclear consulting engineer John Large said that the reports demonstrated that safety problems at the HMNB Clyde were increasing and showed that the regulation of health and safety matters at the base “should be taken from the military and put squarely under the control of a civilian operated regulatory regime."

 

Ministry of Defence annual safety reports for HMNB Clyde are available on the Ministry of Defence website and can also be downloaded here:

 

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