‘Devastating’ nuclear accident risks kept under wraps

A ruling allowing the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to keep nuclear safety problems secret has been condemned as a threat to democracy, with “devastating” accident risks.

An information tribunal in London has rejected a bid to release reports about Trident nuclear bomb and submarine hazards on the Clyde because of fears about leaks to an increasingly “aggressive” Russia.

But the secrecy has come under fierce fire from a former nuclear submarine commander and campaigners. They criticised the MoD for hiding its nuclear blunders, putting people in danger, and edging the UK towards a “closed and dictatorial state”.

The Scottish National Party attacked the MoD’s secrecy as “absolutely untenable”. The idea that withholding information would keep the UK safe was “a very dangerous delusion”, the party argued.

The MoD, however, insisted that nuclear information had to be protected “for reasons of national security”. The defence nuclear programme was “fully accountable” to ministers, it said.

Annual reports by the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), were published for ten years under freedom of information law. But this ceased in 2017.

The Ferret revealed that the reports for 2005 to 2015 highlighted “regulatory risks” 86 times, including 13 rated as high 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 at the Faslane naval dockyard near Helensburgh.

The Ferret reported in 2019 that a belatedly released extract from the 2015-16 report showed that the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator was itself struggling with staff shortages. It could not complete all the “essential tasks” to ensure nuclear safety.

The MoD’s decision to stop publishing DNSR reports was appealed to the First Tier Tribunal on information rights by researcher and campaigner, Peter Burt. Hearings were held in London in December 2019, but the verdict was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling, which has now been made available, dismissed his appeal and endorsed the MoD arguments for secrecy. Key parts of the tribunal proceedings were conducted in private, with Burt banned from taking part.

The tribunal’s judge, Chris Hughes, likened the regulation of nuclear submarines to inspecting cars to ensure they were safe. There were “obligations on the regulator in the public interest to maintain the confidentiality of what has been inspected”, his ruling said.

He pointed out that the published reports had considered “maintenance issues” with existing submarines. But reports since 2015-16 would be dealing with “emerging understanding” of plans to introduce a fleet of new Trident-armed Dreadnought submarines at Faslane.

“The previous information in the public domain will have been assessed by foreign states with potentially hostile intentions,” Hughes said. “However putting information relating to the new vessels into the public domain for the first time and which (it is hoped) they do not yet possess will clearly not be in the public interest.”

The international situation had also been changed by Russia seizing the Crimea, “covertly” occupying other parts of Ukraine and attempting to murder the former Russian intelligence agent, Sergie Skripal, in Salisbury, he argued.

Hughes concluded: “The actions of the Russian state indicate a more aggressive posture militarily as well as a more aggressive targeting of the UK by Russian intelligence. The tribunal is therefore satisfied that both the risk has increased and there are new nuggets of information about UK nuclear capability which may need protection.”

He accepted that the tribunal had not heard any evidence that information from the published DNSR reports had been used by potentially hostile powers. “It is clear however that publicly available sources will be examined and each increment of information will be used to assemble a more complete picture,” he said.

There was a “mosaic effect” that enabled enemies to piece together clues from difference sources, Hughes suggested. The MoD’s case that disclosure could help adversaries understand “potential performance, limitations and vulnerabilities” of nuclear defence was “justified”.

In future it will be much easier for the Ministry of Defence to hide behind official secrecy.

Peter Burt, researcher

The ruling was attacked by Rob Forsyth, a nuclear submarine commander with the Royal Navy in the 1970s who now opposes Trident. “The tribunal’s decision flies in the face of government accountability,” he told The Ferret.

“UK MoD is becoming ever more secretive and, under the cloak of national security, is now not willing even to acknowledge or be accountable publicly for any nuclear incidents — despite the potentially devastating effect that an accident might have on the civilian population.”

Forsyth retired from the Royal Navy in 1980. He served as second in command of a nuclear-armed Polaris submarine, HMS Repulse, from 1972-74, and then captained a nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine, HMS Sceptre, from 1977-79.

Peter Burt, who made the appeal, was worried by the verdict. “It allows the Ministry of Defence to get away with concealing the risks posed by its nuclear programme to the public,” he said.

“We know that in the past there have been radiation incidents at the Faslane submarine base which have raised concerns about safety and environmental matters. In future it will be much easier for the MoD to hide behind official secrecy to keep the public in the dark about problems on the Clyde.”

Burt pointed out that the Westminster government often argued that nuclear weapons were to protect our democracy from authoritarian states such as Russia. 

“Decisions like the information tribunal’s ruling edge us closer to the kind of closed and dictatorial state that Russia is, and show that there can never be any place for nuclear weapons in a true democracy.”

He was backed by the Nuclear Information Service, which monitors nuclear weapons. “This is an undemocratic and ill-considered decision, which only serves to prevent the public being informed about the MoD’s mistakes,” warned the group’s director, David Cullen.

“The only people being kept in the dark here are the public, who have a right to know whether the billions spent on the nuclear weapon programme have resulted in a basic level of safety being achieved.”

Cullen pointed out that Russia had been operating nuclear submarines since the 1950s. “If the high-level DNSR summary contains information that would be useful to Russian intelligence, the problems in the nuclear weapons programme are so serious they will easily be able to deduce it from other sources,” he said.

The UK Government’s response is always obfuscation and secrecy. It is absolutely untenable.

Stewart McDonald, Scottish National Party

The Scottish National Party accused UK ministers of trying to convince themselves that withholding information would be enough to keep us all safe. “That is a very dangerous delusion,” warned the party’s defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald MP.

“The UK Government cannot credibly continue to rely on redactions, no comment policies and withheld figures as its blanket, one-size-fits-all policy when it comes to countering hostile foreign states. Transparency and accountability are essential.”

He added: “The UK Government’s response is always obfuscation and secrecy. It is absolutely untenable.”

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament described nuclear weapons as the “most dangerous” on earth. “This decision is a disservice to the Scottish public who have no voice in their proximity to the UK nuclear weapons system,” said the campaign’s chair, Lynn Jamieson.

“It plays into the MoD culture of cover-up and removes the shred of accountability afforded by previous reports of safety breaches. Reducing public scrutiny because we have new weapons and the Russians have done some bad things lately takes the distorted logic of ‘deterrence’ and runs away with it.”

In November 2019 The Ferret reported that the UK’s civil nuclear watchdog, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), had privately told the MoD that it disagreed with the decision to stop publishing the nuclear safety reports. There was “a difference in approach” between the two bodies, ONR said.

The Ministry of Defence stressed that the defence nuclear programme met “required standards” for nuclear safety.

“The release of information on nuclear safety must strike a balance between recognising public interest in nuclear safety matters and protecting information about our nuclear systems for reasons of national security,” said an MoD spokesperson.

“Defence nuclear programmes are fully accountable to MoD ministers and are subject to regular independent scrutiny and reviews.”

In a submission to the tribunal in 2019, the MoD maintained that keeping DNSR reports secret helped to protect the UK nuclear defence programme. “Undermining the programme would be potentially catastrophic to every person living in the United Kingdom,” it said.

The information tribunal’s ruling

Cover image thanks to the Ministry of Defence. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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