The UK & Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) publishes today a Policy Briefing outlining the concerning issues around an incident of a ‘near miss’ collision between a Royal Navy nuclear powered submarine and a ferry with over 280 passengers, and gives its recommendations for avoiding such incidents in the future.
Last week, the Marine Accident Incident Bureau (MAIB) published its assessment of a November 2018 incident which showed that, only due to the rapid intervention of the officers of the Belfast – Cairnryan passenger ferry ‘Stena Superfast VII’, was a major collision avoided with a submarine which passed within just a few hundred yards of it. (1)
In the aftermath of the incident the Defence Safety Authority’s (DSA) Defence Accident Investigation Branch (DAIB) conducted an initial triage assessment of the incident and determined that, in the context of the information made available to them, a full DSA investigation was not required. However, the Chief Inspector of the MAIB concluded that, given the potential seriousness of the consequences of a laden ferry colliding with a nuclear powered submarine, the matter should be the subject of a formal MAIB safety investigation conducted with the co-operation of the Royal Navy.
The NFLA briefing (from information provided by independent marine radioactivity consultant Tim Deere-Jones) outlines the core aspects of the MAIB report whilst giving its own safety recommendations to go forward in the future. NFLA notes that the MAIB report ascertained that radar was not in use during this incident and there was only specific reception of the ferry’s AIS transmission. The report also noted that the submarine’s Office-on-Watch (OOW) had miscalculated the ferry’s speed as 15 knots and would have calculated it would take the ferry 12 minutes to travel the 6,000 yards. This led to action based on the assumption that there was more time to avoiding action than was the actually the case.
Having made the erroneous decision to turn towards the ferry, the two vessels began converging at a combined speed of 27 knots and were on a collision course with the submarine and the ferry likely to converge in just 6 minutes and 40 seconds. At about this time, ‘Stena Superfast VII’s’ lookout spotted a submarine periscope close on the port bow, and alerted the officer of the watch, who took immediate action (a rapid change of course away from the periscope) to avoid collision. After taking such an avoiding action, the ferry’s crew (based on their photographic and visual evidence) reported that the closest point of approach with the submarine was about 250 yards, which was clearly unsafe and constituted a “near miss” scenario.
The MAIB report concluded that this was an unsafe event and placed the ferry’s crew, passengers and cargo and also the submarine’s, crew and contents in “immediate danger”. Only rapid and effective action by Stena Superfast VII’s bridge team reduced the risk of collision.
The MAIB report has noted that two previous collisions between Royal Navy submarines and surface vessels show a similarity in that key decisions on board the submarines were made based on an insufficient appreciation of the location of surface ships in the vicinity. It has been noted by the MAIB that the Royal Navy has taken a series of actions in response to this incident, and previous similar accidents. As a result, the MAIB report makes a safety recommendation to the Royal Navy to undertake an independent review of its actions taken “to ensure that such actions have been effective in reducing the risk of collision between dived submarines and surface vessels.”
This incident emphasises to NFLA that there remains a real and present danger of a collision between a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine and either a passenger ferry, a fishing trawler or oil / cargo tanker. The recommendations of the MAIB report need to be implemented by the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy as a matter of urgency.
NFLA also make the following specific recommendations in the context of this incident and a number of other previous events to the MOD / Royal Navy:
- In “choke points” and areas of heavy surface commercial vessel activity, nuclear submarines should either travel at “safe depth” or on the surface.
- No more training exercises should be held in “choke point” areas (such as the Irish Sea North Channel, St George’s Channel, the Dover Straits and the Straits of Gibraltar).
- No more training exercises should be held in areas of heavy surface commercial vessel activity.
- There should be a major reassessment or redesign of computerised tactical picture systems by the Royal Navy.
- There needs to be improved and more intensive shore based simulator training for such events of Royal Navy submarine personnel.
- Mandate use of radar when transiting “choke points” at periscope depth.
The NFLA is writing to the Ministry of Defence / Royal Navy, the MAIB and the International Maritime Organisation on these matters now that the report has been published, seeking to follow up on these recommendations. This is not a new issue for the NFLA, as there have been a number of incidents involving submarines and fishing trawlers in the Irish Sea and other locations, which Tim Deere-Jones has profiled in previous meetings of the NFLA All Ireland Forum. (2)
NFLA Scotland Forum Vice-Convener, Councillor Audrey Doig added:
“I am really quite shocked to read this NFLA briefing outlining such a serious incident as a nuclear powered submarine coming within around 250 yards of colliding with a large passenger ferry. The consequences of such a collision does not bear thinking about, particularly if the submarine was carrying nuclear weapons, which no one will tell us whether it was or not.
“The Royal Navy needs to carefully look at the findings of the MAIB report and its submarine activity in the Irish Sea. While training exercises are important to test key personnel, this and other incidents clearly indicate that there is a time and a place for it. This incident could have potentially been life threatening had there been a collision between the submarine and the passenger ferry. Lessons need to be learnt as this has not been a one-off incident. Safety measures must be improved.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 00 44 (0)161 234 3244.
Notes for Editors:
(1) NFLA Policy Briefing 316 on the near miss incident between the submarine and the passenger ferry is attached with this briefing.
(2) Presentation by Tim Deere-Jones to the NFLA All Ireland Forum meeting on the 2015 Ardglass trawler collision with a nuclear submarine and other examples of ‘near miss’ incidents is also attached with this briefing.