The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) is writing to the Marine Accident Incident Branch (MAIB) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) after reports of a ‘close proximity incident’ between a Royal Navy nuclear submarine and an Irish Sea public ferry service.
According to media reports (1), the incident took place in early November 2018, but MAIB announced this week that the incident warranted a full safety investigation.
For some time, NFLA has been concerned about ‘close proximity’ incidents with nuclear submarines and boats on the sea. There has been a number of previous alarming incidents involving fishing trawlers in the Irish Sea and the North East Atlantic, as presented by marine radiation consultation Tim Deere-Jones to a NFLA All Ireland Forum seminar in Dundalk, such as the ‘Ardglass’ trawler colliding with a submarine in 2015. (2)
This particular incident is the more concerning as the ferry was carrying around 1,300 passengers and 660 vehicles at the time.
According to the UK MAIB, a close approach between the ferry Stena Superfast VII and an unnamed nuclear-powered submarine took place in early November. In its January statement MAIB said:
“We have carried out a preliminary assessment of the evidence in this case and the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents has decided to open a safety investigation. The investigation is being conducted with the full co-operation of the Royal Navy. A report will be published when our investigation has concluded.”
In media reports, the Royal Navy said that there had been a “sighting” of one of its submarines between Belfast, Ireland and Stranraer, Scotland on November 6 and that the un-named nuclear powered submarine was operating “at periscope depth”. The Royal Navy have not disclosed whether the submarine was also carrying nuclear weapons.
In his assessment of the incident to the NFLA, Tim Deere-Jones notes that, while the great majority of tabulated UK incidents have typically involved fishing vessels, on the wider global scale nuclear submarines have caused major damage to “merchant vessels”. For example, in 2001 the nuclear powered submarine USS Greenville performed an “Emergency Ballast Blow” surfacing manoeuvre (120 metres depth to surface in less than 10 seconds). Rising to the surface, directly beneath the Japanese fishery training vessel Ehime Maru, the submarine inflicted catastrophic damage on the Ehime Maru which sank with the loss of nine lives
Again, in 2016 the UK nuclear submarine HMS Ambush struck the tanker MV Andreas off Gibraltar, creating £1.2 million of damage to the submarine’s complex sonar tracking systems. From the subsequent investigations it was noted that there was a “training” exercise underway at the time of the incident and that HMS Ambush was also manoeuvring at “periscope depth”.
In response to lobbying from organisations like the Celtic League and others, the IMO generated a series of protocols for the nuclear submarine operations within home and territorial waters. The most recent of these is IMO resolution A17:709:
- It “recommends that a submerged submarine, if information of the presence of a fishing vessel and it’s fishing gear is available, should, as far as possible, keep out of the way of that fishing vessel and any fishing gear connected to it unless the submarine is disabled.”
- Invites governments to bring the above recommendation and the concern expressed in this resolution to the attention of authorities, commanders and officers responsible for operating submarines.
- Develop local arrangements to establish procedures to promote safety of fishing vessels and submarines in areas considered prone to mishaps between fishing vessels and submerged submarines (exclusion areas: stop and help protocols etc).
- Ensure that submarines navigating through areas where vessels are known to fish use all reasonably available means for determining the presence of such vessels and their fishing gear to avoid endangering such vessels and their gear.
The NFLA will seek greater clarification from the MAIB as to this incident and when their report will be published.
NFLA are also writing to the IMO and the European Marine Safety Authority urging them to introduce additional protocols addressing nuclear submarine interactions with larger commercial vessels. This will include suggesting a blanket ban on submerged or near surface (periscope depth) operational and training exercises in UK or Irish home and territorial waters, on established shipping/transits routes and near the approaches to any ports, identified “safe havens” and so forth.
NFLA All Ireland Forum Co-Chair, Councillor John Trainor said:
“This close proximity incident between a UK nuclear submarine and a Northern Ireland bound passenger ferry is alarming to say the least. NFLA has heard before of a number of worrying incidents in and around the Irish Sea with fishing incidents snagging nets and nearly capsizing them. A passenger ferry is a much bigger prospect and a collision between such transports does not bear thinking about. NFLA see a potential weakness in IMO and EMSA regulations around submarine navigation and we will be asking them to consider updating such regulations in reference to the protection of such shipping.”
NFLA All Ireland Forum Co-Chair, Councillor Mark Dearey added:
“This reported incident, which actually took place almost three months ago, raises issues around safety with nuclear submarines and both fishing trawlers and passenger ferries. I call on the MAIB to consider carefully the incident and make recommendations to prevent such near misses happening again. I call on our Government to also clarify this incident with its UK counterparts to satisfy itself that public safety has not been compromised. Having heard first-hand accounts from local fishermen about previous collisions and close encounters involving such submarines it alarms me that such incidents are continuing to take place.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 0161 234 3244.
Notes for editors:
(1) BBC News, 21 January 2019
(2) NFLA All Ireland Forum seminar in Dundalk Town Hall, 30th October 2015 – the presentation on the Ardglass trawler and submarine collision in reference to safety, environmental and territorial issues by Tim Deere-Jones, independent marine environment consultant, is available from the NFLA Secretariat.