The UK Office for Nuclear Regulation has issued an improvement notice on the Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth after a report revealed lapses. The naval base is operated by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and government engineering contractors Babcock Marine. On 29 July 2012, the electric-power source for coolant to submarine reactors failed and then the diesel back-up generators also failed, according to a heavily redacted report from the MoD's Site Event Report Committee.
Babcock launched an internal investigation after the incident, blaming the complete loss of power on a defect in the central switchboard and acknowledging that the event had "potential nuclear implications". Among a number of "areas of concern" uncovered by Babcock was what was described as an "inability to learn from previous incidents and to implement the recommendations from previous event reports".
The Office for Nuclear Regulation issued an improvement notice for three alleged breaches of health and safety legislation, and of Section 24 of the Nuclear Installations Act – regarding "operating instructions".
The MoD's Site Event Report Committee report notes that there had been two previous electrical failures at Devonport − the loss of primary and alternative shore supply to nuclear submarine HMS Talent in 2009, and the loss of "AC shore supply" to the nuclear submarine HMS Trafalgar in 2011.
Regarding the July 2012 loss of power incident, independent nuclear consultant John Large said: "It is unbelievable that this happened. It could have been very serious. Things like this shouldn't happen. It is a fundamental that these fail-safe requirements work. It had all the seriousness of a major meltdown – a major radioactive release." Large warned that if a submarine had recently entered the base when the failure occurred the situation could have been "dire" because of high heat levels in its reactor.
The loss of power incident is one of 11 incidents in the past five years at two nuclear submarine bases, the MoD has revealed. Radioactive waste has been spilled, workers exposed to radiation, power supplies lost, safety valves wrongly operated and a bag of waste mistakenly dropped overboard. Six of the incidents happened at Faslane in Scotland, five at Devonport. The incidents have been admitted by UK defence minister, Philip Dunne, in response to a parliamentary question.
According to the MoD, six incidents since 2008 at Faslane have been defined as "category B", the second-worst rating, involving "actual or high potential for a contained release within building or submarine or unplanned exposure to radiation". In 2008, valves on board a submarine were shut "in error" at Faslane, causing a loss of power. In 2009, there were two problems with cranes at Faslane being used more often than they should be without authorisation. In 2010, the melting of an ice plug caused by the failure of a liquid nitrogen supply resulted in radioactive coolant leaking into a submarine reactor compartment at Faslane. In the same year, a bag of potentially contaminated clothing fell overboard. Last year, maintenance workers entered an area next to a reactor compartment "without the proper radiological controls in place and hence received an unplanned exposure to a radiological dose," the MoD said.
The five incidents at Devonport include a spillage of reactor coolant "into the environment" in 2008, the operation of two submarines without key safety valves in 2010 and an overflowing radioactive waste tank in 2011. The July 2012 loss of power incident is also included in the list. Although the MoD described what happened in 10 instances, it refused to give details of one event at Devonport because "disclosure would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces".
UK Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator report
The 2012−13 report of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) revealed:[4,5,6]
- Cracks in reactors and nuclear discharges, directly attributable to the Royal Navy's oldest Trafalgar Class SSNs (Ship Submarine Nuclear) remaining in service beyond their design date.
- Faults with the new Astute Class submarines that will delay their entry into service, forcing the Navy to continue sailing the ageing and potentially dangerous Trafalgars.
- The Atomic Weapons Establishment failed to notice or rectify corrosion to a nuclear missile treatment plant in Berkshire.
- Nuclear-qualified engineers are quitting the Navy in droves over poor pay and conditions, creating a skills crisis.
DNSR head Richard Savage wrote: "Significant and sustained attention is required to ensure maintenance of adequate safety performance and the rating [Red] reflects the potential impact if changes are ill-conceived or implemented. The inability to sustain a sufficient number of nuclear suitably competent personnel is the principal threat to safety. Vulnerabilities exist in core skill areas, including safety, propulsion, power and naval architects."
In March 2007, two sailors were killed on HMS Tireless when an oxygen generator exploded during an Arctic exercise. An inquest heard that there was a significant possibility the generator was salvaged from a hazardous waste depot in a cost-cutting bid by the MoD. HMS Tireless leaked radioactive coolant from its reactor for eight days in February 2013 including six days at the Devonport dockyard in Plymouth.[4,6]
The DNSR report states: "Inspection programmes have not been as comprehensive as regulators would expect. As an example, corrosion in the structural supports of a building was not identified as early as would be expected which resulted in the Office for Nuclear Regulation issuing a Safety Improvement Notice." AWE admitted corrosion had affected its uranium component manufacturing facility.
Meanwhile, there are fears that two major naval bases (Devonport and Rosyth, Fife) sited near large British cities could become nuclear waste storage facilities by default after it was revealed the MoD proposes to remove low-level radioactive waste from the UK's nuclear submarine fleet. The first of Britain's fleet of 27 nuclear submarines is due to be dismantled within five years. But according to minutes of the Submarine Dismantling Project Advisory Group, there is "uncertainty running to several decades" over a long-term storage solution for radioactive waste. There are seven retired subs at Rosyth and eight at Devonport.
A fire broke out on a Russian nuclear submarine undergoing repairs, according to news reports in September, but no injuries or radiation leaks were reported. Russian news reports said the fire on the Tomsk submarine at repair yards in the Pacific coast city of Bolshoi Kamen had been extinguished with foam on September 16. The Tomsk, capable of firing cruise missiles, has been undergoing repairs since 2010. Reports said all its weaponry had been removed and the reactor was shut down, although it was not clear if any nuclear material remained in the reactor.
Large-scale Soviet nuclear tests, dumping of spent fuel and two scuttled nuclear-powered submarines are a major source of pollution in the Arctic ocean. There are 17,000 containers and 19 vessels holding radioactive waste submerged in the Kara Sea, as well as 14 nuclear reactors including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel, and 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery. In addition, the Soviet nuclear submarine K-27 was scuttled in 1981 in the Kara Sea. The K-27, equipped with two nuclear reactors (and their irradiated fuel), was filled with bitumen and concrete before being sunk, to ensure that it would lie safely on the ocean floor for 50 years.[8,9,10]
As the Arctic thaws under the influence of global warming, oceanic currents in the region could hasten the spread of radioactive materials. But according to Bellona's Igor Kurdrik, an expert on Russian naval nuclear waste, the Russian state has another interest: "We know that the Russians have an interest in oil exploration in this area. They therefore want to know were the radioactive waste is so they can clean it up before they begin oil recovery operations."
The US Navy has decided to scrap the USS Miami instead of fixing the nuclear submarine, which a civilian shipyard worker set fire to in 2012. The submarine was commissioned in 1990 at a cost of US$900 million. It sustained US$450 million in damages after Casey James Fury, a shipyard worker, set the 23 May 2012 blaze.
The fire damaged forward compartments including living quarters, a command and control centre and the torpedo room. Weapons had been removed prior to the fire, and the fire never reached the rear of the submarine, where the nuclear propulsion components are located. Fury said he was suffering from anxiety and having problems with his ex-girlfriend and set the fire in order to get out of work early. It took 12 hours and the efforts of more than 100 firefighters to extinguish the fire. Seven people were hurt. Fury is serving 17 years in federal prison.
 DNSR Annual Report 2012−13, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/fil...