Alarm over nuclear safety incidents at Clyde bases

Nuclear safety incidents on the Clyde with the “potential” to cause radiation leaks contaminating people and the environment have nearly doubled in the last three years, The Ferret can reveal.

The number of more serious “nuclear site events” recorded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) at the Faslane and Coulport bases, near Helensburgh, has risen from seven in 2019 to 13 in 2021. 

In total the MoD has logged 460 safety incidents of all kinds at the two UK nuclear bases in 2019, 2020 and 2021. It has declined to give details of any, but previously said they may include “near-misses, equipment failures, human error or procedural failings”.

Campaigners described the rise in more serious incidents as “particularly troubling”, and accused the MoD of having “let safety standards slip”. They warned there could have been a “near-miss catastrophe” and demanded more openness.

The MoD, however, stressed that it took safety incidents “very seriously” and had “robust safety measures” in place. None of the recorded incidents had caused any harm to people or the environment, it claimed. 

The MoD released the latest figures on nuclear incidents at Faslane and Coulport in response to a parliamentary question at Westminster. Faslane on the Gareloch is the UK Government’s base for nuclear-armed Trident submarines and other nuclear-powered submarines, and Coulport nearby on Loch Long is where the nuclear warheads are stored.

The figures show that there were three incidents in 2021 officially rated as “category B” and 10 rated as “category C”. That compared to one C incident in 2020 and one B and six C incidents in 2019.

According to the MoD, category B means there was “actual or high potential” for a release of radioactivity which could have caused “unplanned individual exposure to radiation”. Site safety rules could have been breached or “significantly” prejudiced.

Incidents categorised as C have “moderate potential” for radioactive releases which could have caused “unplanned individual exposure to radiation”.  There could also have been a “failure of line of defence or protection”.

There were a further 50 incidents in 2019, 26 in 2020 and 41 in 2021 that were rated as “category D”. That means there was a “low potential for release”, but an “adverse trend” that could affect safe operation.

Another 101 incidents in 2019, 122 in 2020 and 99 in 2021 were classified by the MoD as “below scale”. This means they were “of safety interest or concern, including human error, equipment or process failures that cause near misses, abnormal occurrences.”

Nuclear site events at Faslane and Coulport

YearCategory BCategory CCategory DBelow ScaleTotal
Source: Ministry of Defence

The MoD did not respond to The Ferret’s request to give details of the more serious incidents in 2021. In 2018 the MoD said recorded events “may be near-misses, equipment failures, human error or procedural failings”.

Earlier incidents at Faslane and Coulport disclosed under freedom of information law have included radiation leaks, coolant water losses, dropping a reactor control rod, unplanned reactor shutdowns and communication breakdowns.

The parliamentary question that uncovered the safety incident figures was asked by the Scottish National Party MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, Deidre Brock. There had been “a lengthy record of safety failures at Faslane and Coulport,” she told The Ferret.

“The increase in severity of recent incidents make these latest figures particularly troubling. Overall, the number of more serious category B and C events has nearly doubled from seven in 2019 to 13 in 2021.”

Brock accused the MoD of continuing “to let safety standards slip”, and attacked UK ministers for pressing ahead with Trident renewal. “Disclosures such as this should not depend on a single MP submitting parliamentary questions to defence ministers,” she argued.

“Reports from the MoD’s Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator detailing these incidents should be made available to the public so some sort of transparency is restored and people can weigh up for themselves the risks created by the storage of these weapons of mass destruction in Scotland.”

Brock added: “It only takes one bad accident at Faslane for a catastrophe to occur, yet the UK Government is prepared to continue to put us all at risk for decades to come. It’s way past time these weapons were removed from Scotland.”

The public may never know if the accidents involved a near-miss catastrophe or just another little unplanned seep.

Lynn Jamieson, Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament dismissed the MoD’s suggestion that no human or environmental harm had been caused by the incidents as “frankly not credible”. It warned that any increases in radiation can trigger cancers in those who are particularly vulnerable.

“The public may never know if the accidents involved a near miss catastrophe or just another little unplanned seep,” said the campaign’s chair, Lynn Jamieson.

“Since not all forms of radioactive discharge around Faslane and Coulport are measured, or measured frequently, there is plenty of scope for claiming no harm while cumulatively harm is done.”

Phil Johnstone, a senior research fellow from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, described the rise in category B and C incidents as “of serious concern”. It should be seen in the context of “growing worries” about safety at Faslane over the past decade, he said.

The MoD’s lack of transparency was “problematic”, he argued. “We do not know further details of specific incidents from current information.”

Johnstone added: “It is very difficult for the British public — including those that live near Faslane — to properly understand and evaluate the risks for themselves. This issue therefore raises broader concerns around democratic scrutiny of the UK’s military nuclear enterprise.”

His colleague at Sussex University and professor of science and technology policy, Andy Stirling, also stressed the need for more transparency. “Nuclear history shows how without strong provision for transparency, details of nuclear incidents can be concealed, so missing crucial early warnings that could prevent later serious accidents,” he said.

He pointed out that in 2016 the International Atomic Energy Agency had urged regulators, to “continually strive for openness and a transparent process”. The MoD’s Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator undertook in 2021 to “ensure that its approach to regulatory activities is transparent”.

Stirling added: “It is these vital undertakings that are being breached by the present opaque, ambiguous and potentially misleading MoD nuclear safety reporting.”

For ten years the MoD published annual safety reports by its internal nuclear regulator under freedom of information law. But since 2017 the reports have been kept secret “for reasons of national security”.

The Ferret revealed in 2018 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 shortage of suitably qualified and experienced nuclear engineers. 

In responding to Deidre Brock’s question, the UK defence minister, Jeremy Quin, offered reassurances. “The safety significance of all reported events remains low,” he said.

“None of the events caused harm to the health of any member of staff on the naval base or to any member of the public or have resulted in any radiological impact to the environment.”

According to the Ministry of Defence, releasing information on nuclear safety must strike a balance between recognising the public interest and “protecting information about our nuclear systems for reasons of national security”.

An MoD spokesperson added: “We have robust safety measures in place at all MoD nuclear sites and we take safety incidents very seriously. Our nuclear programmes are subject to regular independent scrutiny and reviews.”

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

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