Revealed: fire safety and staff problems at nuclear sites

Nuclear bomb sites across the UK have fire safety problems as well as shortages of safety regulators and engineers, according to a new report from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

But most of the MoD’s latest internal assessment of the safety of nuclear weapons has been kept secret for “national security” reasons – prompting fury from politicians and campaigners.

They have attacked the nuclear secrecy as “deeply alarming” and “completely unacceptable”. The official attitude to nuclear safety was a “disgrace”, they said.

Previous nuclear safety assessments, revealed by The Ferret, have highlighted “regulatory risks” 86 times. Many involved the Trident warheads and nuclear submarines based on the Clyde.

The new MoD report also disclosed “significant weaknesses” on safety at non-nuclear sites. These included “serious deficiencies” on fire safety and “significant risk” from old fuel facilities – particularly on the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

The MoD accepted that there were “infrastructure issues”, but insisted that they were being addressed. Defence nuclear programmes were “fully accountable” to UK ministers, it said.

The MoD has posted online the 2019-20 report from the Defence Safety Authority, which brings together seven regulators, a safety team and an accident investigation unit operating within the MoD. They are overseen by the authority’s director general, air marshal Sue Gray.

But the report said that the entire section from the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), which is responsible for ensuring safety of the nuclear weapons programme, has been “marked SECRET” and given only “limited distribution”.

The MoD has previously released ten annual DNSR reports following a challenge under freedom of information law in 2010. They flagged up risks of accidents, ageing submarine reactors, spending cuts and much else.

But in 2017 the MoD abruptly ceased publishing the reports, insisting that they had to be kept under wraps to protect national security. In 2019 that decision was challenged by campaigners at a UK information tribunal, whose verdict is still awaited.

The latest safety authority report, however, does contain a few details of nuclear risks buried in its 80 pages. It doesn’t specify which bases were affected, but they are likely to include the two major nuclear weapons sites, at Faslane on the Clyde and at Aldermaston in Berkshire.

In a discussion of problems with “fire safety assurance” across all MoD sites, the report said: “Particular issues have been noted at defence nuclear sites, where discussions continue between defence and statutory regulators.”

Between April 2019 and March 2020 as many as 374 fires were reported on all MoD sites. Although there had been some improvements “there is still more to do to reinforce the capability of defence to manage fire safety,” the report said.

A section on the “maturity” of the DNSR as a nuclear safety regulator disclosed that it was facing an 11 per cent shortage of staff in 2020-21. Shortfalls had been mitigated by the secondment of two senior staff from the UK government’s nuclear power watchdog, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, and from the nuclear weapons company, AWE.

This had been supplemented by “making full use of partial retirees, graduate placements and development posts during 2019-20,” the report said. But these stopgap measures were failing.

“Both secondments terminated at short notice in early 2020 and two of the partial retirees are to fully retire in the first half of 2020. In addition, one of seven principal inspectors has resigned from the civil service leaving a gap which has yet to be filled,” it added.

“This will leave a significant shortfall of three posts in DNSR resources – 11 per cent of total DNSR headcount – and steps will be taken to address this in 2020-21.”

A graphic in the report suggested that the MoD’s “maturity assessment” of DNSR worsened in 2019-20. An arrow by a radiation symbol denoting DNSR was pointing downwards, though this was not mentioned in the text.

Revealed: fire safety and staff problems at nuclear sites 3
Graphic from Ministry of Defence report suggesting that the ‘maturity’ of nuclear safety regulation – denoted by a radiation symbol – is on the decline.

The MoD report concluded that there was “substantial” assurance that the DNSR was an effective regulator, meaning that there were “minor weaknesses”. But it cautioned: “The resource challenges outlined above may start to put this at risk if post gaps endure.”

The report considered at length the “enduring problem” of the widespread shortages of “suitably qualified and experienced people” across the armed forces. It pointed out that in highly skilled areas “such as aviation, fire, ordnance, munitions and explosives and nuclear, there is little sign of progress”.

The Ferret reported in December 2019 that a short extract released from the DNSR’s report for 2015-16 showed that the MoD was struggling with nuclear staff shortages. Previous DNSR reports regularly highlighted shortages of nuclear engineers and scientists as an issue.

The MoD report highlighted inadequate fire safety across all military operations. It concluded that there was only “limited” assurance, meaning that there were “some areas where significant weaknesses have been identified”.

This had been the case for the last three years, the report said, “with continuing failings in performance and compliance against many of the key regulatory articles but small improvements.”

Fires described as “serious” have kept occurring on army property. “Failings in competence, fire safety responsibilities and infrastructure have regularly been identified by risk-based and post-fire audits, made worse by deliberate action to compromise both passive and active fire safety systems,” the report stated.

“Overall, despite some encouraging signs there are still serious deficiencies in fire safety suitably qualified and experienced people and management arrangements.”

There was also a major problem with old oil and gas facilities. “Fuel and gas infrastructure across defence remains a significant risk with potential high impacts on both safety and the environment,” the report said.

“Particular problems have been identified with the state of the fuel infrastructure in the Falkland Islands.”

A prohibition notice in 2019-20 forced action to remedy “fuel infrastructure failings” on the islands. There was also an “urgent improvement notice” for “fuel issues” there, plus 22 other improvement notices in force.

MoD safety regulators “have raised concerns about the explosives, fuel and gas and adventurous training facilities in the Falkland Islands,” said a footnote in the report.

Overall the Defence Safety Authority rated all MoD operations as having “limited” safety assurance for 2019-20, though it had “marginally but measurably improved” since the previous year. Safety with maritime, land, fire and medical activities was rated as “limited”, but the overall assessment of nuclear safety was kept confidential.

It is deeply alarming that the MoD continues to shroud so much secrecy over the safety issues with Britain’s weapons of mass destruction.

Ross Greer, Green MSP

The Nuclear Information Service, which researches nuclear weapons, criticised MoD secrecy. “The MoD has no reason to withhold so much information from the public, unless they have something to hide,” said the group’s director, David Cullen.

“Shortcomings on fire safety, the ongoing shortage of nuclear regulators and staffing problems within the regulator would all be concerning if they occurred separately. Instead they are happening together, along with an unknown number of undisclosed issues.”

He added: “It is completely unacceptable that we are not given even the basic safety information that has been withheld from this report.”

The Scottish National Party expressed concern about “a pattern of failure” on MoD safety. “Worryingly, the findings of this report reflect significant non-compliance with security and safety regulations at sensitive sites, including those where there are nuclear materials,” said the party’s defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald MP.

“Not only is nuclear power and weaponry not safe, it is expensive, and not being handled properly under this Tory government’s watch. The UK government needs to transition away from nuclear entirely.”

McDonald described the nuclear safety failures as “alarming” and accused the MoD of “a lack of regard for public safety and transparency”. He pointed out that the UK government’s civil nuclear watchdog, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, had criticised MoD secrecy.

The Scottish Green MSP for the west of Scotland, Ross Greer, called for nuclear weapons to be completely scrapped. “It is deeply alarming that the MoD continues to shroud so much secrecy over the safety issues with Britain’s weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

“We’ve known for years of significant issues at sites like Faslane and on the submarines themselves, so continued attempts to hold information back from the public are totally out of order.”

Lynn Jamieson, chair of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: “The MoD’s tolerance of unsafe regimes is a disgrace for an organisation supposedly overseeing our protection. This adds to the urgency of nuclear disarmament.”

We are aware of the infrastructure issues outlined in the report and are taking actions to address them.

Spokesperson, Ministry of Defence

According to the Ministry of Defence, the annual assurance report and recommendations were currently being reviewed. Information that “could compromise national security” would not be published, the MoD said.

It stressed that “defence nuclear programmes are fully accountable to MoD ministers and are subject to regular independent scrutiny and reviews.” Fire and building regulations were followed.

An MoD spokesperson added: “The safety of the public, our personnel, their families and the environment is of the highest priority.

“The defence nuclear programme continues to meet the rigorous standards of nuclear and radiological safety. We are aware of the infrastructure issues outlined in the report and are taking actions to address them.”

The report released by the Ministry of Defence

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

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