The UK and Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) is very disappointed with the decision of a tribunal appeal related to the Information Commissioner that has decided to not allow certain defence nuclear safety reports to be published, citing ‘national security’ grounds.
As ‘The Ferret’ investigative journalism site has uncovered, annual reports by the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), were published for 10 years under the Freedom of Information Act, but ceased in 2017, when the MOD deemed these reports now as ‘too sensitive’ to go into the public realm.
The Ferret has noted previously that the reports for 2005 to 2015 highlighted “regulatory risks” 86 times, including 13 rated as ‘high priority’. One issue repeatedly seen as a high risk was a growing shortage of suitably qualified and experienced nuclear engineers, which is of real concern to the NFLA.
For example, the DNSR report for 2014-15 warned that the lack of skilled defence nuclear staff was “the principal threat to the delivery of nuclear safety”. It was also concerned that “attention is required to ensure maintenance of adequate safety performance” for ageing nuclear submarines at the Faslane naval dockyard near Helensburgh. (1) A further report also noted serious staffing shortages in the DNSR were creating potential issues in its own regulation of the defence nuclear sector.
An appeal to the MOD decision on keeping these reports private was made to the Information Commissioner by nuclear policy campaigner Peter Burt. The tribunal considering this appeal has rejected it on the basis that such information could be useful for potential ‘enemies’ of the UK.
The tribunal’s judge, Chris Hughes, noted that the published reports had considered “maintenance issues” with existing submarines, but since 2015-16 had also been dealing with “emerging understanding” of plans to introduce a fleet of new Trident-armed Dreadnought submarines at Faslane.
Hughes noted that: “The previous information in the public domain will have been assessed by foreign states with potentially hostile intentions…However putting information relating to the new vessels into the public domain for the first time and which (it is hoped) they do not yet possess will clearly not be in the public interest.”
“The actions of the Russian state indicate a more aggressive posture militarily as well as a more aggressive targeting of the UK by Russian intelligence. The tribunal is therefore satisfied that both the risk has increased and there are new nuggets of information about UK nuclear capability which may need protection.”
NFLA note this decision has been challenged by the former nuclear-armed submarine commander Rob Forsyth. He said: “UK MOD is becoming ever more secretive and, under the cloak of national security, is now not willing even to acknowledge or be accountable publicly for any nuclear incidents – despite the potentially devastating effect that an accident might have on the civilian population.”
NFLA share the view of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS) that this decision feels undemocratic and ill-considered. It moves away from the quite different push for openness and transparency that the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) have been seeking to pursue in the civil nuclear sector. It appears perfectly reasonable to the NFLA that the public should know that defence nuclear safety is undertaken in an adequate fashion and that the transport of nuclear materials and the operation of the defence nuclear sites has enough skilled staff to operate it. Now we just have to hope the MOD is operating safely and take their word for it, when previous annual reports were showing alarming gaps, before the government stopped the reports being made public.
In the NFLA’s view, it should be possible for the public to be made aware of safety issues in the defence nuclear sector without it compromising UK national security. There has been a nuclear submarine programme for over 60 years now, so what has changed now that was not present then, including during the height of the Cold War, when a nuclear weapons threat was particularly seen as more imminent?
NFLA have recently undertaken a major report on the safety of nuclear transports in the civil and defence nuclear sector. This outlines a considerable list of historical incidents and accidents as evidence of the need for an independent oversight of defence nuclear activity. Now it looks like the public will not know whether its defence nuclear sector is truly safe or not. (2)
NFLA Steering Committee Chair Councillor David Blackburn said:
“I am quite surprised the tribunal has decided not to allow these defence nuclear safety reports be published into the public realm. In NFLA’s view it is quite reasonable that the public should be made aware of safety lapses and staff shortages in the defence nuclear sector, without compromising national security. In the end, billions of pounds of public money are spent on these programmes and the public should have the right to know it is being spent correctly. The UK Government makes much about Trident being available to protect our democracy, but now we cannot hear whether the programme is operating safely. That surely can’t be right, and we call for a reconsideration of the need for reasonable openness and transparency when it comes to radiation incidents and safety incidents from the defence nuclear sector.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 07771 930196.
Notes to Editors:
(1) The National, 4th July 2021
(2) NFLA Policy Briefing 217, 18th June 2021