The UK government’s nuclear safety watchdog has criticised the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for hiding efforts to ensure the safety of Britain’s nuclear bomb programme under a cloak of secrecy.
The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has privately told the MoD that it disagrees with the ministry’s decision to stop publishing annual reports on nuclear weapons safety. There is “a difference in approach” between the two government bodies, ONR told The Ferret.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) and campaigners agree with ONR and are calling on the MoD to release the reports, which have previously revealed “regulatory risks” 86 times at Clyde nuclear bases and elsewhere over ten years. The MoD insists, however, that its nuclear programme is “fully accountable”.
The MoD’s decision to keep the reports secret is due to be challenged at a freedom of information tribunal starting on 2 December in London. The tribunal is expected to rule whether or not the reports should be published.
The MoD released reports from the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), for ten years following a previous challenge under freedom of information law in 2010. But in 2017 it abruptly ceased, claiming the reports had to be kept under wraps to protect “national security”.
The released reports highlighted “regulatory risks” 86 times, including 13 rated as high priority, 50 as medium priority and 23 as low priority. One issue repeatedly seen as a high risk was a growing shortage of suitably qualified and experienced nuclear engineers.
The DNSR report for 2014-15 warned that the lack of skilled staff was “the principal threat to the delivery of nuclear safety”. It also cautioned that “attention is required to ensure maintenance of adequate safety performance” for ageing nuclear submarines, including the Trident boats based at the Faslane naval dockyard near Helensburgh.
The Ferret learned that the MoD’s decision to stop publishing the DNSR reports was discussed at a meeting in London between ONR and non-governmental organisations on 7 November. ONR’s chief nuclear inspector, Mark Foy, made clear to those present that he did not agree with the MoD’s move, adding that he had said so to MoD officials.
We asked ONR to confirm its view that the MoD should reverse its decision to keep the DNSR reports secret. “We recognise that there is a difference in approach between ONR and the MoD with regards to the publication of information,” said an ONR spokesperson.
“In recognition of the views of our stakeholders, we have informally raised the subject during routine discussions with MoD colleagues, but ultimately any decision on the release of defence-related material is a matter for the MoD.”
ONR also disclosed that it was seeking legal advice from the government’s Attorney General’s Office to clarify its role in regulating MoD nuclear sites. “As part of a due diligence review relating to how we discharge our regulatory purposes on defence sites, we are seeking assistance in the interpretation of some of the legal terms used in Nuclear Installation Act 1965,” the spokesperson said.
“ONR is an independent, statutory regulator which is committed to openness and transparency.”
The SNP described the MoD decision to stop publishing the nuclear weapons safety reports as “deeply concerning”. The number of risks revealed by previous reports was “staggering”, said the party’s defence procurement spokesperson, Douglas Chapman.
“We cannot allow the Ministry of Defence to duck and dive scrutiny and put the public at risk,” he added.
“With serious questions being raised over the safety of the UK’s programme of weapons of mass destruction, the UK government must reverse this decision and ensure there is complete transparency.”
Dr David Lowry, a member of the ONR chief nuclear inspector’s independent advisory panel, also criticised the MoD. “I applaud the attempts by Mark Foy to put some real transparency into regulating nuclear weapons safety,” he said.
“ONR is the legal regulator for the nuclear weapons production plants at Aldermaston, Burghfield and Sellafield as well as submarine berths. DNSR needs to recognise that in a parliamentary democracy it is important these facilities are scrutinised and regulated properly.”
David Cullen, director of the Nuclear Information Service, which monitors nuclear weapons, was “glad” that ONR had raised the issue. “Any responsible regulator would understand the fundamental need for transparency,” he said.
“The MoD is claiming that national security would be at risk if the public were given basic information about the safety of the nuclear weapons programme. I’m sure ONR understands that this absurd position risks undermining public confidence in the safety of the programme across the board.”
The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament warned that secrecy was dangerous. “It encourages a complacent, dishonest, cover-up culture that too often surrounds the nuclear industry,” said the campaign’s chair, Lynn Jamieson.
“Making safety reports unavailable will further increase the burden of risk carried by the Scottish population since nuclear weapons came to the Clyde.”
According to the MoD, the current Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator is Commodore David Langbridge, who has been in post since at least 2011. The ministry disputed that ONR had said that it “wanted the MoD to reverse its decision” not to publish DNSR reports.
“UK defence nuclear programmes meet the highest standards of nuclear and radiological safety and remain fully accountable to regular independent scrutiny,” said an MoD spokesperson.
Photo thanks to the Ministry of Defence.