- Safety issues with UK’s nuclear subs and facilities used to repair missiles
- Cracks in reactors and nuclear discharges found in Navy’s oldest boats
- Nuclear-qualified engineers are quitting over poor pay and conditions
- Experts described latest report as the most worrying they had seen
Britain’s ageing nuclear submarines have been issued with ‘Code Red’ safety warnings after inspectors found radioactive leaks and a chronic shortage of Royal Navy engineers trained to repair faulty reactors, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
An official watchdog discovered major safety issues with both the UK’s nuclear-powered submarines and facilities used to repair nuclear missiles, raising the risk of a catastrophic accident involving radioactive material.
Last night, experts described the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) report for 2012-13 as the most worrying they had seen.
Code Red: Tireless, the oldest submarine in the Royal Navy fleet, which entered service in 1984, suffered damage to its circuits earlier this year resulting in a radioactive leak
The document, obtained by this newspaper, reveals:
- Cracks in reactors and nuclear discharges are 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 will delay their entry into service, forcing the Navy to continue sailing the ageing and potentially dangerous Trafalgars.
- The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) 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.
Head of the DNSR Dr 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.
HMS TIRELESS THE ‘KILLER SUB’
In March 2007, sailors Anthony Huntrod, 20, (right) and Paul McCann, 32, (left) were killed on HMS Tireless when a self-contained oxygen generator exploded during an Arctic exercise north of Alaska.
They died trapped in a small, smoke-filled compartment.
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.
‘Due to build delays with the Astute Class, there has been a requirement to extend the Trafalgar Class beyond their original design life in order to maintain the SSN flotilla at a fully operational level.
Some of the emergent technical issues affecting the Trafalgar Class over the last few years can be directly attributed to the effects of plant ageing.’
The report also raises concerns over whether the UK’s nuclear fleet and its inland nuclear establishments could withstand an earthquake on the same scale as the one that struck the Fukushima reactor plant in Japan in 2011.
The document notes that facilities which form part of Britain’s Defence Nuclear Programme (DNP) require ‘continued priority attention’ to reach recommended safety standards.
Last night, nuclear expert John Large told The Mail on Sunday that the DNSR report revealed a crisis in Royal Navy nuclear safety.
He said: ‘This is the most self-damning and concerning report that I have seen. We’re talking about a ticking time-bomb, with a higher risk to the public and the environment than we previously feared.
‘The combination of a lack of nuclear engineers, the Astute submarines being so far behind schedule and the Trafalgar Class sailing beyond their design date is very worrying.
‘The Trafalgars, including HMS Tireless, the oldest boat of the class, should be withdrawn immediately.’
HMS Tireless, which entered service in 1984, suffered damage to its circuits earlier this year resulting in a radioactive leak.
The nuclear sub was patrolling off South-West England when the problem arose, forcing its captain to return to Devonport. A more serious leak was avoided because of swift remedial action.
Nuclear materials – including Trident missiles – are brought to the AWE’s site at Aldermaston, Berkshire, for assembly, maintenance and decommissioning.
Warning: There are also fears over the Aldermaston centre where Trident missiles are serviced
These processes include ‘uranium polishing’ – the removal of impurities from the material in order to extend its life cycle as a component in nuclear missiles.
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.’
Last night the AWE admitted corrosion had affected its uranium component manufacturing facility, but added repairs had been completed.
An MoD spokesman said: ‘We would not operate any submarine unless it was safe to do so and this report acknowledges that we are taking the necessary action to effectively manage the technical issues raised by the regulator.
‘It also highlights that the MoD is committed to maintaining expertise in submarine technology and operation – underlined by last month’s operational handover of the first two Astute Class submarines.’
Source – Daily Mail