The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) notes with real concern reports published in ‘The Guardian’, and detailed in ‘The Ferret Scotland’ investigative news agency website, that outline further disturbing findings from defence nuclear emergency planning exercises. This new information indicates to the NFLA that the defence nuclear sector is struggling to maintain its safety systems and potentially putting the public at risk.
Just last month, NFLA commented on failings from a Rosyth Ministry of Defence (MOD) submarine base exercise. NFLA felt it formed part of a growing body of evidence suggesting more systemic concerns around defence site nuclear safety may require attention. NFLA called on a joint review to be held on nuclear emergency planning arrangements by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator and the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to allay public concern and seek significant improvements. (1) (2)
That growing body of evidence has expanded after information has been provided to ‘The Ferret’ and published today in ‘The Guardian’ which highlights further serious failings found in three other exercises. (3) The NFLA is also concerned that it has taken two years to release this information under the Freedom of Information Act, highlighting how the use of ‘national security’ issues is continuing to be given as a reason to prevent openness and transparency of important safety issues by the MOD.
Two of the MOD exercises (held in south Wales in 2011 and Oxfordshire in 2012), codenamed ‘Astral Bend’, included a scenario of aircraft carrying the core components of nuclear weapons crashing and spreading radioactive contamination up to three miles (5km) away. At the 2011 exercise there was a mix-up over how to deal with contaminated casualties. The fire service was criticised by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DSNR) for refusing to allow ambulance teams to take away seriously injured people until they had been decontaminated. If this has been a ‘real-time’ event it could have led to avoidable deaths.
DSNR also questioned the training of military commanders, which they noted was “inadequate” because of cutbacks, and there was a “lengthy delay” before they liaised with emergency services, it said. Media questions at a briefing during the 2011 Astral Bend exercise were “not well handled, in particular substantially understating the scale of the hazards”.
In the 2012 Astral Bend exercise the DSNR report noted emergency responders were contaminated at the accident scene, a helicopter was delayed and fax numbers were “incorrectly notified”.
A third MOD emergency planning exercise had a scenario of an accident involving a 20-vehicle nuclear weapons convoy. These travel on a regular basis by road between Burghfield in Berkshire and Coulport on the Clyde Estuary. Exercise Astral Climb was played out in November 2012 in Northumberland. As ‘The Guardian’ report notes, for reasons that have been redacted in the response provided to it by the MOD, staff in the weapons convoy prevented fire and ambulance services from getting to casualties for 40 minutes when their help was “critically required”, the DNSR report said. DSNR note that: “This may have contributed to the number of fatalities within the exercise.”
NFLA share the concerns made in ‘The Guardian’ report by the independent nuclear consultant, John Large that, in the event of an accident close to an urban area the emergency response would not be sufficient enough to protect hundreds and possibly thousands of members of public.
John Large added:
The Astral exercises were characterised by delay upon delay, with crucial time being eked away by duplication of effort and confusion on the ground. In the chaotic aftermath of a real incident there is little reassurance that the MoD and our civilian emergency services would at all cope.”
NFLA welcomes comments made by the MOD and the Welsh Ambulance Service that improvements have been made since the exercises. Indeed, that is the main reason why such exercises are held. However, this increasing amount of evidence from a considerable number of such exercise reports is highlighting to NFLA serious potential failings in knowledge, expertise, inter-agency cooperation and the effects of financial cutbacks. This could be putting public health and safety at risk in the event of an accident to a nuclear weapons convoy or at a defence nuclear site.
As NFLA has noted previously, this tallies with issues noted in the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator Annual Report on more generic concerns around safety management arrangements. These include:
- the amount of available resources and suitably skilled personnel in the defence nuclear sector,
- the level of organisational change in the defence nuclear sector,
- concerns over aging plant and facilities across defence sites,
- the quality of product and control work. (4)
NFLA Steering Committee Chair Councillor Ernie Galsworthy said:
Again and again we are hearing of serious issues arising from Ministry of Defence nuclear emergency planning exercises. I am becoming increasingly alarmed they are part of a trend which suggests public health and safety could be at risk due to real difficulties encountered by the defence nuclear sector with the amounts of suitably skilled staff, financial pressures and aging facilities. I shall be writing to the Ministry of Defence and its nuclear regulators seeking assurances that the sector is capable of protecting the wider public from a dangerous accident.”
For more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary on 07771 930196.
Notes for editors:
(1) NFLA Media Release, 18th January 2016 https://www.nuclearpolicy.info/news/as-another-defence-nuclear-emergency-planning-exercise-raises-concerns-with-the-nuclear-regulator-nlfa-calls-for-an-urgent-review-of-defence-site-safety-and-emergency-arrangements
(2) The Ferret 14th Jan 2016
(3) The Guardian, 9th February 2016 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/09/mock-mod-nuclear-emergencies-exposed-life-threatening-errors
(4) Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator Annual Report 2012-13, as noted in a presentation by Peter Burt, Nuclear Information Service to the NFLA English Forum meeting in Oxford, 20th November 2015 (presentation available on request from the NFLA Secretary)