The UK Government is refusing to say why it is keeping nuclear safety reports secret because it is worried about “anti-nuclear arguments from the Scottish Government”.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) won’t give its reasons for failing to release annual assessments of the safety of nuclear weapons on the Clyde so as not to “prejudice relations between the UK and Scottish governments”.
The secrecy has been condemned by the Scottish Greens as “outrageous, undemocratic and frankly dangerous”. It was akin to nuclear policies in Russia, China and North Korea, according to a campaigner — and it was described as “totally unacceptable” by a former nuclear submarine commander.
The Scottish Government urged the MoD to be “open and transparent” about the handling of nuclear materials in Scotland. The MoD said it had to “strike a balance” between public interest in safety and protecting information about nuclear weapons.
Annual reports from the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), were released for ten years, but ceased being published in 2017. A freedom of information appeal to a UK tribunal to force the MoD to again release the reports was rejected in July 2021.
The Ferret previously 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 shortage of suitably qualified and experienced engineers.
Now the MoD has rejected another freedom of information request asking for documents that set out the rationale for refusing to release more recent DNSR reports. It disclosed that the decision was taken in 2017 by then secretary of state for defence, Michael Fallon, but has withheld information on why.
In a letter to a campaigner in January 2023, the MoD said it had used an exemption under freedom of information law aimed at preventing damage to relations between UK administrations. The exemption had been applied to information “which relates to the basing of the nuclear deterrent in Scotland”, it explained.
“There is a strong public interest in reassuring the public, especially in Scotland, that the nuclear deterrent is maintained and operated safely. However, any misinterpretation of the information, due to an incomplete picture, could lead to further anti-nuclear arguments from the Scottish Government, which is already strongly in favour of removing the nuclear deterrent from Scotland.”
The MoD concluded that “the balance of public interest” was in favour of withholding the information “as its release would prejudice relations between the UK and Scottish governments.”
The MoD letter also argued that information on reasons for withholding the reports should be kept secret “for the purpose of safeguarding national security”. Secrecy was also necessary so as not to prejudice “the defence of the UK” or “the relationship between the UK and the US” as well as to allow a “safe space” for officials to advise ministers.
A formal memo to officials from Fallon in October 2017 released by the MoD gave a little more detail. “The current threat of the UK deterrent from hostile state actors, including hostile foreign intelligence services [redacted] means we need to tighten up our practice on release of information,” it said.
“Even information which is unarguably unclassified in isolation could help a potential adversary put together a more highly classified picture.”
Nuclear secrecy ‘totalitarian’
The Scottish Greens argued that the people of Scotland have a “fundamental right” to know the risks they face from hosting weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde. Suppressing information that may support arguments against nuclear weapons poses a “clear and present danger” politically, it warned.
“The extraordinary admission in this letter that the MoD and UK Government are actively concealing key pieces of information from the Scottish Government is outrageous, undemocratic and frankly dangerous,” said Green MSP, Mark Ruskell.
“The MoD is basically saying they won’t share this information because they are scared Scotland won’t like it and it might upset the US. You simply can’t get any more totalitarian than that and this should be challenged further.”
Ruskell added: “If they want to reassure people that there are no unnecessary added dangers, they should share the information urgently and transparently. If not they should pack up and ship out. Scotland doesn’t want nukes here and they know it.”
The nuclear researcher and campaigner who has been challenging the MoD’s refusal to release the nuclear safety reports is Peter Burt. UK citizens are allowed to know “virtually nothing” about the hazards of nuclear weapons despite paying billions of pounds for them, he said.
“We’re not allowed to know whether the Ministry of Defence’s safety watchdog thinks the nuclear weapons programme is complying with public protection arrangements, and Scottish Ministers are not trusted to know what is going on at the Navy’s nuclear bases in Scotland,” Burt told The Ferret.
“It’s pretty clear that this has more to do with politics than security. While the US government regularly releases information about its nuclear weapons programme, the UK Government has decided to model its own nuclear policies on those of countries like Russia, China, and North Korea.”
Rob Forsyth, a former Royal Navy nuclear submarine commander who now campaigns against nuclear weapons, described the MoD’s justifications for secrecy as “totally unacceptable”.
He said: “The way to avoid any misinterpretation is to be honest and fully transparent over matters affecting public safety and our national defence. The notion that government should not allow public discussion is not conduct expected of a democracy.”
The Scottish Government reiterated its opposition to the possession of nuclear weapons and its support for world-wide nuclear disarmament.
“In order to retain the confidence of this government and the Scottish public, the Ministry of Defence should be open and transparent in its actions around the handling of nuclear materials in Scotland,” said a spokesperson.
The Ministry of Defence insisted that it had “robust safety measures” at nuclear sites and took safety incidents “incredibly seriously”. Nuclear programmes were “subject to regular independent scrutiny and reviews,” it said.
An MoD spokesperson told The Ferret: “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.”
Letter from the Ministry of Defence
Memo from the defence secretary, Michael Fallon
Cover image thanks to Ministry of Defence.