THE Ministry of Defence (MoD) is being reprimanded by a government watchdog for breaking safety rules after a worker was exposed to radiation at the Faslane nuclear base on the Clyde.
The incident occurred because staff stopped carrying portable alarms as they should to alert them to radiation dangers. The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is warning the MoD that it must take remedial action to make sure there is no repeat of the incident.
Critics described the incident as unacceptable and worrying, arguing that it raised renewed questions about nuclear safety on the Clyde. However, the MoD said that procedures had been improved.
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The incident is described in the ONR’s latest quarterly report on the Clyde nuclear submarine and bomb bases at Faslane and Coulport, posted online. It happened in June 2014, and prompted an internal investigation by the MoD and then another by ONR safety inspectors.
The worker was subjected to a small burst of radiation from a source that had been left partially unshielded. A variety of radiation sources are used in industry as X-rays and gauges.
“The local rules required the use of a portable gamma alarm to provide a warning to the operators should the source become exposed," said the ONR report. "However it had become custom and practice not to use the alarm in certain areas.”
“The local rules had not been amended to reflect this change to the practice, and there was no evidence that the risks had been re-assessed and appropriate alternatives considered.”
ONR inspectors concluded that “there had been a non-compliance with the ionising radiations regulations, in that local rules were not followed and that the risk to operators had not been reduced so far as is reasonably practicable.”
ONR said it would write to the MoD “highlighting the non-compliance with the regulations and identifying the areas that will need corrective action to help prevent a recurrence.”
A remote radiation alarm is now used instead of workers having to carry portable ones.
“This latest incident revealed by the regulator raises yet more serious concerns about nuclear safety at Faslane,” said SNP Westminster leader and defence spokesperson Angus Robertson. “It is unacceptable that any individual is exposed to harmful levels of radiation and it is shocking that it had become customary not to use the recommended safety alarm. This disregard for safety regulations is intolerable on any work site, let alone one dealing with nuclear weapons and reactors.”
Earlier this month our sister paper, the Sunday Herald, revealed that the number of reported radiation safety incidents at the Clyde bases had leapt by more than 50 per cent from 68 in 2012-13 to 105 in 2013-14. The MoD is also struggling to recruit enough skilled nuclear safety engineers.
Robertson said there was a correlation between the rising number of safety incidents and the shortage of skilled staff. The combination was “very dangerous”, he said, adding: “The MoD must immediately take steps to rectify both.”
John Ainslie, coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, described the new safety breach as very worrying. “The incident is similar to someone switching off their smoke alarm because it occasionally goes off when they are cooking,” he said.
“But this is taking place where Britain’s nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines are based. It is yet another example of corners being cut at Faslane when it comes to protecting the safety of workers and the public.”
The MoD stressed that radiation safety was given the highest priority. “The event at HMNB Clyde was subject to a very comprehensive investigation,” said an MoD spokeswoman. “A number of recommendations to improve the existing arrangements were identified and immediately implemented. The ONR have said they are content with the actions we have taken.”
The ONR did not wish to comment further. It pointed out that because the Clyde military bases were exempt from statutory site licensing, the lead on nuclear safety regulation was taken by the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator.