Staff shortages have prevented an official watchdog from completing all “essential tasks” to ensure the safety of the UK nuclear weapons programme, according to a previously confidential Ministry of Defence (MoD) report.

A short extract from a report by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) – kept secret by the MoD since 2017 – reveals that the nuclear programme was struggling with shortages of “suitably qualified and experienced personnel”.

Four pages of the DNSR annual report for 2015-16 were released by the MoD in the run-up to a freedom of information tribunal in London on 2 December. The tribunal is considering an appeal against the MoD’s refusal to publish the whole report.

The MoD routinely released the internal regulator’s annual reports on nuclear bomb safety between 2005 and 2015, but then abruptly ceased, citing national security. The tribunal is expected to rule whether or not the reports, which have previously revealed a raft of safety problems, should be published.

A submission to the tribunal on behalf of the UK Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, is scathing about some of the MoD’s arguments for secrecy. She dismisses a suggestion that releasing the report for 2015-16 could cause a nuclear attack on the UK as “patently implausible”.

Critics accuse the MoD of behaving like the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, by using secrecy to avoid difficult questions. They suspect it’s more about “covering up embarrassing facts than protecting national security.”

But in submissions to the tribunal the MoD insists that releasing the whole DNSR report could undermine the UK nuclear defence programme. This would be “potentially catastrophic to every person living in the United Kingdom,” it says.

Trident nuclear safety reports suppressed by the Ministry of Defence

The brief extract from the 2015-16 report released by the MoD warned that the DNSR only had “sufficient resource to undertake the majority of identified essential tasks”. The regulator had to rely on secondments and said that “a significant and increasing volume of work is being deferred.”

There was a “very high level” of activity in the Defence Nuclear Programme (DNP), the report said. “One of the key challenges to the DNSR, as it is to the wider DNP, is the continued availability of suitably qualified and experienced personnel.”

The report also warned that there were “significant succession planning issues” due to “a high turnover of personnel either joining other organisations or retiring”.

One of the reasons put forward by the MoD for not releasing the rest of the 2015-16 DNSR report is that it covers the start of work to replace Trident nuclear submarines on the Clyde. Four nuclear armed and powered Vanguard submarines based at Faslane near Helensburgh are due to by succeeded by new Dreadnought boats.

In a statement to the tribunal, Vanessa Nicholls, the MoD’s nuclear director general said: “The Dreadnought fleet will enter service in the early 2030s, but the construction programme is already underway and so is the associated safety assurance process, which formed part of the material in the 2015-16 report.”

The public can be reassured by simply knowing that there is a body regulating defence nuclear safety, she argued. “The public interest in maintaining a credible and effective deterrent is greater than the public interest in transparency about the DNSR’s conclusions.”

Nuclear safety is of colossal public interest, given the devastating potential consequences of accidents. Elizabeth Denham, UK Information Commissioner

But a counter-submission to the tribunal by information commissioner Denham takes a very different view. “The public interest is only met to a limited extent by the knowledge of the mere existence of the DNSR,” she said.

“The commissioner cannot accept the MoD’s wider assertions on appeal that it would harm national security, and be contrary to the public interest, to withhold the entirety (or near entirety) of the DNSR report.”

Denham rejected “significant aspects” of MoD evidence submitted to the tribunal in secret. “Nuclear safety is of colossal public interest, given the devastating potential consequences of accidents,” she added.

“It is something of a non sequitur for the MoD to assert that the ‘consequences of undermining the UK’s nuclear deterrent are potentially devastating’. If the MoD means to imply by that language that any disclosure ordered by the tribunal will cause the UK to be the subject of nuclear attack, that is patently implausible.”

Denham also criticised the MoD for not abiding by its own promises to be open. “An effective blanket non-disclosure policy is not aligned and is inconsistent with the repeated recognition by the DNSR itself of the need for openness and transparency,” she argued.

“It is hard to see how parliament can effectively hold the Secretary of State to account if it has no idea what the view of the regulatory body is, what issues that body is raising, or what the MoD is doing in response. Accountability is not provided by parliament only being able to ask questions after something has gone wrong.”

The MoD has been taken to the information tribunal by anti-nuclear campaigner, Peter Burt. He has been backed by witness statements from the defence minister in 2010-12, Sir Nick Harvey, and the former Polaris nuclear submarine commander, Robert Forsyth.

“Defence ministers believe that we should not be allowed to know what concerns the safety watchdog has over their nuclear weapons programme,” Burt said.

“The view that public safety must take second place to state security is an attitude that Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un would heartily approve of, and provides a convenient blanket of secrecy to avoid unwelcome questions.”

Ministry of Defence under fire for hiding reports on nuclear safety problems

The Nuclear Information Service, which monitors nuclear weapons, found it hard to understand why the MoD had suddenly stopped publishing DNSR report. “I strongly suspect that this is more about covering up embarrassing facts than protecting national security,” said director, David Cullen.

“The MoD claims its nuclear programme is run to the same standards as the civil nuclear sector, but it is a worry that the engineers who police safety in the defence nuclear programme are under-resourced and lack effective enforcement powers.”

He added: “Regulation of the MoD’s nuclear programme should be brought under the control of the publicly accountable and transparent Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).”

The Ferret reported on 29 November that ONR had privately told the MoD that it disagreed with the ministry’s decision to stop publishing DNSR reports on nuclear weapons safety. There was “a difference in approach” between the two government bodies, ONR said.

In another submission to the tribunal, the MoD maintained that keeping the DNSR report under wraps 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.

“Undermining the defence nuclear programme would make it easier for an adversary to attack the UK. Even if the risks of such attack may not be high, the potential gravity of the harm is so great that there is an overwhelming public interest in not increasing that risk, even slightly.”

The Ministry of Defence confirmed that appeals were being heard by a tribunal concerning the 2015-16 DNSR report. “We will not comment further while proceedings are ongoing,” an MoD spokesperson said.

The information tribunal is expected to issue its ruling early in 2020.

Photo thanks to Ministry of Defence.

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