28 Jan 2011

Cutbacks make nuclear bombs and boats unsafe, warns MoD

The safety of Britain’s nuclear bombs and submarines is being jeopardised by budget cuts and staff shortages, according to secret reports released by the MoD, writes Rob Edwards.

Cutbacks make nuclear bombs and boats unsafe, warns MoD

The safety of Britain’s nuclear weapons and submarines is being increasingly jeopardised by worsening staff shortages and financial cutbacks, according to secret reports just released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The MoD’s internal nuclear safety watchdog has warned that it can no longer ensure that the Trident warheads that crisscross the country and the nuclear-powered submarines that sail around the coast “remain safe”. There was a “lack of adequate resource to deliver (and regulate) the defence nuclear programmes safely”, it said.

The Royal Navy has been struggling to cope with shortages of skilled reactor engineers and scientists by restricting their time ashore, shifting them around and cutting back on submarine operations.

But now these pressures have grown so great that such trade-offs are becoming impossible, Channel 4 News can reveal.

The reports, marked “restricted”, are by the MoD’s Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board (DNESB), which regulates all military nuclear operations. They cover 2008 and 2009, and have been released by the MoD in response to Freedom of Information requests.

“The judgement last year was that some areas were barely resourced to deliver their outputs (including safety) with a considerable load on a small number of key individuals,” said the 2009 report.

“Whilst it was considered then that availability might be traded to ‘remain safe’, the current view is that the space to do this is now eroded with the resilience of the submarine enterprise under threat and even the ability to recognise this at risk.”

Financial shortages

The report, signed by the DNESB chairman, Howard Mathers, concluded that a lack of money and suitably competent staff were “the principal threats to safety in the defence nuclear programmes in the medium term.” It said that the MoD risked breaching government policy on public safety and environmental protection and was facing “potentially significant risks” to its programmes.

Mathers pointed out that there was a 14 per cent shortage of civilian safety experts – four percentage points higher than in 2007 – plus a seven per cent shortage of submarine reactor engineers. The engineers have been restricted to “minimum time ashore”, while other gaps have been dealt with by “moving the holes around”.

The problems have deepened since concerns expressed in earlier DNESB reports covering 2006 and 2007, revealed by The Guardian two weeks ago. The official alert level on the lack of resources was raised from amber to red in 2009, as was the alert level on staff shortages in 2008.

Mathers also warned that UK safety law aimed at reducing risks “is not correctly understood” across the MoD. This meant that workers, the public and the environment could be at risk from “the sinking of a submarine, explosive potential of munitions, radiation from the use of radioactive materials”, he said.

Public risk

The MoD was accused by a former senior safety official, Fred Dawson, of putting cost-cutting ahead of public safety.

“These reports highlight the very serious resource and funding problems now faced by the MoD in the delivery of the nuclear propulsion and weapon programmes safely without unacceptable risk to workers, the public and the environment,” he said.

Dawson worked for the MoD for 31 years and was head of its radiation protection policy team before he retired in 2009. The latest reports were released by the MoD after he requested them under Freedom of Information legislation.

He argued that the MoD had failed to learn the lessons from the Nimrod aircraft crash in Afghanistan in 2006 in which 14 people died.

“An accident involving a nuclear weapon or a submarine reactor has the potential to cause harm on a much greater scale because nuclear weapons are transported on public roads and submarines are berthed and serviced near or alongside centres of population,” he said.

The MoD insisted that it takes its nuclear safety responsibilities very seriously. “We have made improvements to our apprentice programme as well as improving staff training and will continue to address the issues raised on the safety report,” said an MoD spokesman.

Rob Edwards is a freelance journalist