The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been formally reprimanded by its internal safety regulator for five nuclear safety breaches, according to documents seen by The Ferret.

The Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) served MoD nuclear agencies with one safety improvement notice in 2017, two in 2016 and two in 2010. The notices alleged a series of serious safety failings with submarines stationed on the Clyde and at Trident bomb bases.

The DNSR accused the MoD of “a failure of safety culture”, “inadequate resourcing” and “continued non-compliance”. In 2010 DNSR expressed concern that “that future nuclear reactor programme safety may be compromised.”

The revelations have been described as “alarming” by the SNP, and prompted accusations from others of a worrying “corner-cutting culture” at the MoD. The MoD, however, insisted that it had not compromised nuclear safety.

The DNSR is a watchdog that operates within the MoD to regulate the safety of its nuclear operations. Although its annual reports were released for ten years after a prolonged freedom of information battle, the MoD said in 2017 that it would make them secret.

Trident nuclear safety reports suppressed by the Ministry of Defence

DNSR reports for 2015-16, 2016-17 and now 2017-18 have all been kept under wraps, as have their headline findings. But now, in response to a freedom of information request, the MoD has for the first time released the official safety notices served by DNSR, often marked “official-sensitive” or “restricted-management”.

The most recent was on 14 September 2017, when a notice was served on the MoD’s Strategic Weapon Project Team at Abbey Wood near Bristol for failing to comply with safety requirements on organisational capability.

“DNSR considers that the lack of a nuclear baseline and therefore the lack of control of organisational change demonstrates a non-compliance,” the notice said. The MoD was ordered to implement “adequate arrangements to control any change to its organisation structure or resources which may affect safety.”

In October 2016 DNSR told the MoD’s Naval Reactor Plant Authorisee (NRPA) that it had also failed to comply with safety requirements on organisational capability. “There remains a lack of demonstrable evidence that the NRPA has an adequate, extant nuclear baseline,” said DNSR.

In September 2016 a DNSR safety improvement notice accused the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire of “continued non-compliance” for failing to provide required safety documentation.

In May 2010 DNSR rapped the Nuclear Propulsion Project Team for a “failure to meet good safety management practice” in the programme to build new Astute-class reactor-driven submarines. Three Astute submarines are now based at Faslane naval base near Helensburgh, with three more on the way.

“Inadequate resourcing forms the root cause of failing to address regulatory concerns,” the safety notice said. “DNSR’s concern is that future nuclear reactor programme safety may be compromised.”

A DNSR notice in April 2010 accused the naval base at Devonport in Plymouth of a “failure to reinstate primary systems” after submarine maintenance. This allowed two nuclear-powered submarines to go to sea with blocked safety valves suggesting “a failure of safety culture”, DNSR said.

Nuclear safety improvement notices served on Ministry of Defence

DateMinistry of Defence agencyProblem
September 2017Strategic Weapon Project Teamfailures in organisational capability
October 2016Naval Reactor Plant Authoriseefailures in organisational capability
September 2016Atomic Weapons Establishmentnon-compliance on safety documentation
May 2010Nuclear Propulsion Project Teamsafety management failures
April 2010Devonport naval baseblocking submarine safety valves
source: Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator

The SNP stressed that safety and security needed to be “paramount” in nuclear operations, and the public needed to be confident this was always the case. “The number of safety improvement notices served on the MoD for nuclear safety failures is alarming, and shows a lack of regard for public safety and transparency,” said the party’s defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald MP.

“It’s appalling that it takes a freedom of information request to uncover this information, which speaks to a wider concern over transparency at the MoD.”

McDonald urged the UK government to review its commitment to nuclear weapons in its programme to modernise defence. “The Tories are unwilling to listen to the SNP on nuclear weapons,” he added.

“But when they can’t even guarantee keeping us safe from our own weapons then there are serious questions that must be answered on the ethics and value to the taxpayer of maintaining this arsenal.”

Green MSP and environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell, called for the MoD to be “fully accountable” to public scrutiny. “Despite the vast sums spent on maintaining these weapons of mass destruction there is clearly a corner cutting culture that has seriously compromised safety standards,” he told The Ferret.

“It is time for Trident to be decommissioned, and the money, resources and skills connected to Faslane redeployed towards sustainable progressive infrastructure projects.”

There is clearly a corner cutting culture that has seriously compromised safety standards. Mark Ruskell, Green MSP

Three of the five safety notices were about failures in organisational capability. This problem was highlighted in a report by House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in September 2018.

There were “multiple risks to delivery of nuclear deterrent”, the report concluded. It warned that the MoD had to bridge a “£2.9 million affordability gap” to find the resources needed to ensure that nuclear submarines could stay at sea and be safely dismantled after their operational lives ended.

The Nuclear Information Service, which monitors nuclear weapons, argued that “inadequate funding” was the common theme in the safety notices. “With increasing budgetary pressures on the whole nuclear weapons programme and the MoD refusing to release annual safety reports, how are the public supposed to have confidence that the programme is safe?” asked service director, David Cullen.

“It’s time for the MoD to stop marking its own homework and set up a properly independent and transparent regulator.”

‘Significant’ radioactive waste problem at Trident submarine base

The newly-released 2017-18 report from the Defence Safety Authority has only given a “limited” safety assurance for all MoD activities. According to the report, this meant that defence “continues to have some significant weaknesses in its safety processes and governance which in turn present a risk to life, risk to operational capability, risk to the environment, and risk to the reputation of the department.”

But it is not clear to what extent these deficiencies cover nuclear defence operations as the 2017-18 report from the DNSR has not been released “for national security reasons”.

The secrecy was condemned by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND). “It is totally unacceptable for the MoD to keep annual nuclear safety reports secret,” said SCND chair, Arthur West.

“It is the view of SCND that these reports should come into the public domain and be subject to parliamentary and public scrutiny.”

DNSR had revealed a “catalogue of safety failures”, West claimed. “It is very worrying that on a number of occasions safety improvement notices have been served on the MoD for significant nuclear safety failures.”

We do not compromise on nuclear safety and our programme achieves the required standards. Spokesperson, Ministry of Defence

The MoD, however, insisted that it had taken “positive steps” to deliver its “technically challenging” nuclear programme. “We do not compromise on nuclear safety and our programme achieves the required standards,” said an MoD spokesperson.

“We continue to deliver on our commitment to strengthen the management of all our nuclear programmes, ensuring they are managed, advanced and delivered as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Establishing the Defence Nuclear Organisation and the Submarine Delivery Agency are part of us delivering on that commitment.”

The MoD claimed that its nuclear programme was fully accountable to ministers, faced independent scrutiny and met all the required standards. “We no longer publish DNSR reports for national security reasons,” the spokesperson added.

“Withholding these assessments will not prevent effective management and independent assessment of the defence nuclear programme, or prevent its duty holders being held to account. When managing safety, our aim is to maximise transparency while balancing the need to protect our capabilities from exploitation by potential adversaries.”

Nuclear safety improvement notices released by the Ministry of Defence



This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National. Photo thanks to Ministry of Defence via Open Government Licence.