Radioactive leaks from naval base
Updated on 27 April 2009
Britain's Trident submarine fleet is accused of behaving "above the law" after a secret series of radioactive leaks and hazardous practices at its base were revealed by Channel 4 News.
Nuclear discharges, safety fears and concerns over poor maintenance at the Faslane naval base in Scotland were so acute experts say it should have been closed down, a Channel 4 News investigation has found.
Details of the nuclear breaches at the base, part of Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde, were unearthed via a series of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests by this programme.
But because the Ministry of Defence (MoD) base, which is situated 25 miles west of Glasgow, operates outside of civilian law, regulators were unable to enforce sanctions.
Angus Robertson, SNP defence spokesman, said: "It is totally horrifying. We have now learned that we have had nuclear leaks at the Clyde for years.
"It is not just one case it is a whole series. The MoD should be answerable to the public authorities that regulate that. It has not done that. It thinks it is above the law."
Personnel at base, which is situated on the eastern shore of Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute, are supposed to treat radioactive waste and pump it into the nearby loch under controlled conditions, to limit impact on the environment.
But according to the previously secret FoI documents, three radioactive leaks have taken place at Faslane, which is based on the eastern shore of Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute, in the past six years.
In 2004, radioactive effluent was discharged from the nuclear submarine, HMS Trafalgar. This showed "procedural weaknesses" and prompted a "final warning letter" from regulator and watchdog the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).
Read the documents
On 24 August 2007, an unknown amount of radioactive liquid leaked from the nuclear submarine, HMS Superb, because a valve had been wrongly left open. SEPA was not informed for six days, and then issued a second final warning letter after stating the base's waste management was "inadequate".
The MoD said they had taken the incident seriously and tightened procedures.
On 20 February 2008, an unknown amount of radioactive waste overflowed into the loch from a tank on a barge, while effluent was being transferred from the nuclear submarine, HMS Torbay. The barge was taken out of service, and SEPA dispatched a third final warning letter.
The MoD said the discharges had "no measurable or quantifiable environmental consequence." Five other leaks in the past ten years were also revealed in separate SEPA reports released to us under FoI.
John Large, a consultant nuclear engineer who has advised the MoD on radioactive safety, said: "If this was a nuclear power station it would have been shut down. We've had discharges that would be totally intolerable in a civil nuclear plant."
Faslane services the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines and the reactors that drive the submarines produce radioactive waste which has to be disposed.
"If this was a nuclear power station it would have been shut down. We've had discharges that would be totally intolerable in a civil nuclear plant."John Large, consultant nuclear engineer
Aside from details of the leaks, the MoD's own secret review of nuclear practices carried out last year - obtained by this programme - revealed further concerns.
It details how one nuclear accident was the result of "procedure not being followed correctly," and that such behaviour was a "recurring theme."
The probe found levels of staffing and training were "inadequate". While it states the build up of solid radioactive waste in tanks was a "significant radiation hazard" and that there was "inadequate maintenance" of pipes.
It also revealed that "no drawings existed" of where some of the pipes even were. A total of 27 recommendations were made to bring plants and practices up to modern standards.
But despite such concerns, Faslane remains exempt from the environmental radiation legislation that SEPA enforces on civilian sites.
Campbell Gemmell, chief executive of SEPA, said: "With a civilian operator we would have been having very robust conversations about prohibiting further action until we could see very clear demonstrations of systems and training that would prevent this ever happening again."
He said that were Faslane a civilian facility, SEPA would have "considered" shutting it down until the problems were rectified.
A spokesman for the MoD said the discharges into the loch had no serious environmental consequences.
He added: "We commissioned an independent study into the facilities and practices at the base and an improvement plan is currently underway to ensure modern standards and best practice at the base.
The FoI documents were obtained from the Ministry of Defence, Health and Safety Executive, and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.