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Faslane – A Clean bill of health? – A look back in time
From the date of their introduction nuclear submarines berthed at Faslane have been plagued by problems with their nuclear propulsion systems and accidents. In 1995, HMS Sceptre returned suddenly to Faslane from sea with problems that at the time were reported as a radiation leak.
It returned to sea but a defect in the reactor was discovered in 1998, early on during its’ refit at Rosyth where the full seriousness of the problem was not recognised until the middle of 2000.
During Sceptre’s refit the submarine broke free from its’ mooring and shot forward 30 feet inside the dock. Some Rosyth workers said that this was the most serious accident that had ever taken place in the yard. In January 2002, Defence Minister Adam Ingram admitted that the problem on Sceptre was due to “small original fabrication imperfections” in the Reactor Pressure Vessel.
Despite a refit already extended by 18 months the Minister said that the MoD could not accurately say how long it would take to inspect and repair the problem. Sceptre eventually sailed from Rosyth in March or April 2003.
During the same period, HMS Sovereign, the oldest submarine in service, primarily used as a training boat, had similar problems. Sovereign was in Rosyth dockyard for several years on a very long refit and finally being rededicated in January 1997.
Shortly afterwards cracks were discovered in its tail shaft during post refit sea trials and it was sent back to Rosyth in June 1998 needing emergency repairs. In 2000 it was reported that Sovereign has been withdrawn from operational service because of a potential reactor fault and a statement made in January 2002 indicated that Sovereign had the same problem as Sceptre (i.e. “small original fabrication imperfections” in the Reactor Pressure Vessel.)
In September 2000, HMS Splendid was the only operational Swiftsure class submarine allowed to continue to be operational until February 2001. However when the submarine sailed from Faslane on 16 October 2000, it was subsequently recalled to Faslane on 21 October to be removed from service until checks were carried out into its reactor. An earlier decision made in 1998 was that Splendid would not be given the refit it had been due in 2003 and the submarine was taken out of service.
In January 2002 it was revealed that there was concern that HMS Superb could have the same problem as Sceptre and Sovereign as it shared the same reactor design. However a safety case was made for it to return to duty, pending a further inspection later in 2002.
HMS Spartan arrived at Rosyth in January 1999 for a refit that would start in March 1999 but was not due to be completed until April 2003 – twice as long as the two years nuclear submarine refits normally take.
Also at the same time, Trafalgar class submarines (based at Devonport, but regular visitors to the Faslane base) faced just as many difficulties. On 19 November 2000, HMS Triumph hit the seabed when 3 miles off course during a ‘Perisher’ submarine commander training exercise off the west coast of Scotland.
Two junior officers were subsequently court-martialled – neither of them taking the Perisher course. It was revealed during the court-martial that prior to the accident they had gone 12 days with only 4 hours sleep a night.
Their defence lawyer said that one of the officers was suffering from extreme fatigue. Defence Minister Adam Ingram described the incident as ” a glancing contact with soft sand and shells”.
The troubled HMS Trafalgar hit the news on several occasions (and the sea-bed) as well, whilst in Scottish waters. In November 2002 the submarine hit rocks near the Isle of Skye during submarine captain’s training resulting in damage to the hull.
The vessel returned to Faslane for inspection and repairs costing £5m. Three sailors were injured after they had been violently thrown to the deck. Two officers were subsequently court-martialled for the collision and the Naval Enquiry found “lapses” from usual Navy standards including, unbelievably, ‘Post-it notes’ covering navigational display screens.
As part of a training exercise, the yellow notes were covering the display screens of the navigational systems the officer in charge of the vessel normally relied on, and the navigation charts were allegedly difficult to read because of poor lighting.
If that wasn’t enough, in April 2004, only a month after the court-martial for the collision with the Isle of Skye had concluded, diesel fumes circulated through Trafalgar’s ventilation system while it was in Devonport dockyard, triggering an alarm forcing crew to breath through masks. Three of the crew had to be treated for gas inhalation. Shortly afterwards this was followed by a freon gas leak, (used as a refrigerant gas) which escaped in another incident when the submarine arrived at Faslane to start sea trials.
Reports have it that there had been a total of 270 defects on the submarine before it sailed from Devonport. The Navy denied all allegations, except one. That was that there was a ‘minor problem’ with the nuclear reactor’s control rods that are used to prevent a runaway nuclear reaction.
On 28 April 2004, eleven of the crew refused to go to sea on Trafalgar from Faslane, in what was widely described in the media as ‘mutiny’. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said however that, that was not the case. “They did not refuse orders. They expressed concerns and their commanding officer felt it prudent to land them,”
Concern was also raised about the number of fires and false alarms in Faslane and Coulport. The sites are protected by “Crown Immunity” and as such are not licensed by the government’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, so are only subject to limited independent inspection. Safety is is overseen by the Royal Navy’s own Naval Nuclear Regulatory Panel, based in Bristol. In October 2004, The Sunday Herald revealed there had been 14 fires and 486 false alarms at the two sites over the previous year.
Previously unpublished reports from the Naval Nuclear Regulatory Panel criticised “weaknesses” and “shortfalls” in safety procedures. The panel’s three latest reports, covering the period from November 1 2003 to July 31 2004, revealed the panel’s misgivings about safety at the two bases. “The naval base has acknowledged that its arrangements and current safety justifications are not consistent with current standards,” says one report. Advice was issued that the bases planned to implement a site-wide safety improvement programme “to address these shortfalls”.
Another report revealed arrangements for managing the construction of a new radioactive waste processing facility at Faslane “were not considered adequate”. An emergency exercise held in November 2003 identified the same “areas for improvement” highlighted in previous exercises. The panel noted “weaknesses in arrangements for undertaking periodic safety reviews” and said the base did not have a formally agreed programme for such reviews. It also expressed concern about arrangements for the training, management and deployment of suitably qualified and experienced staff.
During the nine months covered by the report, 14 fires at Faslane and Coulport, (more than one a month) were caused by electrical components overheating, faulty wiring in engines, cigarettes in bins and welding equipment. They were all attended by Faslane’s own fire service, but in seven serious cases Strathclyde Fire Brigade was also called in.
Coulport’s emergency control centre (where Coulport’s Emergency Plan for dealing with major incidents involving the nuclear weapons stored at the depot would be implemented from) was “stood to” (or activated) on four separate occasions. These emergency procedures were started at a frequency of nearly once every two months during the nine months. Most of the 486 false alarms were reported as being caused by dust, insects, power fluctuations or smoke from cigarettes and bonfires. Many were due to faulty equipment, and a few to honest mistakes and malicious acts by workers.
Larger and more substantial new jetties needed to be built to accomodate the new generation of nuclear-powered Astute class submarines. Fortunately the programme was delayed for around 4 years allowing time for the work to be completed. Cost over-runs totalled around £500 million. This was met by the taxpayer, not the company.
Astute and its sister boats were, the biggest and most powerful attack submarines ever built for the Royal Navy with a weapons load 50% greater than the previous Trafalgar class submarines.
And a look forward to the future?
The proposed Trident replacement, due to be in place by 2020 will further increase the payload of each missile adding yet more nuclear muscle to the devastating power already available. But is the journey really necessary?
Extracts from Fortress Scotland – Published by Scottish CND, 15 Barrland Street Glasgow, G41 1QH