Nuclear sites ‘set to flood’ due to climate change

The Faslane nuclear base on the Clyde could be forced to shut down by increasing storms and floods caused by climate pollution, according to a new report.

The nearby Trident missile store at Coulport and the nuclear submarine graveyard at Rosyth, on the Forth, are also likely to be damaged by rising waters in the future, the report says, along with six other nuclear sites in England.

There is a “significant risk” to stockpiles of military radioactive waste from “climate-drive extreme weather”, the report warns. Government safety regulators have been “relatively complacent” about the risks in the past, it claims.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) denied it was complacent. The UK Government’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) said flood protection at nuclear sites was “very high” and risks to nuclear safety “very low”.

‘Vulnerable’ nuclear infrastructure

The 38-page report has been written by Dr Paul Dorfman, a former MoD advisor who chairs the Nuclear Consulting Group think tank. “UK nuclear military bases are set to flood,” he concludes.

“Present UK coastal military nuclear infrastructure is profoundly vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise, storm intensity and storm surge, with inland nuclear facilities also facing inundation and flooding.”

MoD mitigation efforts will become “obsolete, and sooner than planned”, he argues. “Climate impact to nuclear will inevitably involve very significant expense for UK nuclear military installation operation, waste management, decommissioning, relocation or abandonment.”

Dorfman accuses the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, and the ONR of taking a “relatively complacent” view of flooding risks in 2011 and 2012. “UK nuclear military installations are on the front-line of climate change,” he says.

He points out that flooding around the Forth and Clyde occur “on an almost annual basis”, with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency recording storm surges in the Firth of Clyde of up to two metres.

The Faslane naval base on the Gareloch has a “very great concentration of nuclear military resources and associated radiological inventories,” he says. “Projected significantly increased annual flooding and storm surge brings into question the operational viability of the naval base.”

Faslane is the home port for the UK’s four nuclear-powered Vanguard submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles. It also hosts the new generation of nuclear-powered and conventionally-armed, Astute submarines.

Coulport, on Loch Long, is the naval armaments depot where Trident and other missiles are stored and loaded onto submarines. “Future annual flooding and storm surge will significantly impact on-site operations at this key nuclear military depot,” says Dorfman.

Rosyth, in Fife, is where seven defunct nuclear submarines are stored, pending decisions on their disposal. “Whilst all the boats have been de-fuelled, the reactor pressure vessels, primary and secondary circuits are still intact and pose a significant contamination risk, with future annual flooding substantially increasing hazard,” he claims.

The other nuclear sites in England said to be at risk are the Devonport naval base in Plymouth; the BAE Systems yard at Barrow; the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria; the nuclear weapons plants at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire and the Rolls Royce submarine plant at Raynesway in Derby.

I guess the MoD has done its sums and already knows how vulnerable its sites are, but probably wants to keep it quiet.

Dr Paul Dorfman, Nuclear Consulting Group

The report includes a series of maps illustrating flood risks to military nuclear bases. They are based on “conservative” and “median” estimates of sea level rises that “represent reasonable and plausible projections”, it says.

“Current fundamental scientific knowledge of climate sensitivity and polar ice melt concludes that sea-level rise is significantly faster than previously thought and will exceed between one and two meters well within the 21st century.”

Dorfman, an honorary senior research associate at University College London, was an advisor to the MoD’s nuclear submarine dismantling project from 2006 to 2016. “I guess the MoD has done its sums and already knows how vulnerable its sites are, but probably wants to keep it quiet,” he told The Ferret.

“What’s important for UK MoD nuclear sites is the risk of near-term climate-driven storm surge. That’s the clear and present danger that neither MoD nor ONR can adequately model.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland warned that a nuclear site was “the very last place” anyone would want to see flooding. “The Royal Navy manages to combine nuclear risks with significant and growing risks of flooding at Faslane, Coulport and Rosyth,” said the environment group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“By the 2050 even a moderate climate change forecast sees serious flooding at both sites likely every year. The likely costs of dealing with these findings add to the growing case for renouncing nuclear weapons.”

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament argued that the navy needed a plan to get nuclear activities out of the Clyde. “Predicted flooding at bases with radioactive materials must not add to the MoD’s list of accidents,” said campaign chair, Lynn Jamieson.

“The MoD has a share in the many missteps that brought the climate emergency. Nuclear weapons were one of the bigger ones and it is time to step back.”

Standards of protection against nuclear consequences of flooding at all nuclear sites are very high, and nuclear safety risk from flooding is very low.

Spokesperson, Office for Nuclear Regulation

According the Royal Navy, Dorfman’s report was based on a “worst-case” scenario. “The Ministry of Defence is not complacent when planning against any emerging threats, including the potential effect of climate change, for all our capabilities,” said a spokesperson.

The Office for Nuclear Regulation pointed out that the law required nuclear sites to be able to withstand floods that come once in ten thousand years. “Standards of protection against nuclear consequences of flooding at all nuclear sites are very high and nuclear safety risk from flooding is very low,” said a spokesperson.

“Furthermore, to ensure that sites remain safe, we expect site operators to design against reasonably foreseeable climate change over the lifetime a facility. This includes periodically reviewing new data and advances in climate science, and adapting sites if necessary to ensure they remain protected in the future.”

Experts advised ONR to help ensure that nuclear sites took account of the latest science on climate change. “This supports our mission to protect society by securing safe nuclear operations, now and into the future,” the spokesperson added.

Cover image thanks to Ministry of Defence.

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