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Hammond deceived Parliament over Dounreay leak

The Defence Minister has been shown to have deceived the House of Commons in his statement on Thursday about a radiation incident on the Trident submarine prototype reactor at Dounreay. He told Parliament there had been "no measurable change in the radiation". However published figures show discharges at the time of the accident, in 2012, were 11 times higher than the average since 2000. First Minister Alex Salmond said, "What a tangled web Hammond weaves when he practices to deceive". 

The story was revealed by Rob Edwards in the Sunday Herald. The incident took place in January 2012 at the submarine prototype reactor (Vulcan) at Dounreay. It was kept secret for 2 years, until Hammond's statement to the House of Commons on 6 March.  

He said there was "no measurable change in the radiation" following the incident. However this is refuted by figures published by SEPA. The graph below shows discharges of noble gases (argon, xenon, krypton) from the submarine reactor in each year from 2000 to 2012. The figure for 2012 (2.16 GBq) is 11 times the average amount between 2000 and 2011.

 

 The MOD told the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) about the incident several months after, in the Summer of 2012, on the basis that they would not pass the information on.

The incident was deliberately excluded from safety regulators' reports covering 2012. The ONR report on Vulcan for the first quarter of 2012 says, under the heading Non-Routine Matters, "There were no items of particular note during the reporting period". The report from the MOD's internal regulator, DNSR, for the same period said - "No non-routine matters arose during this period". Despite its major implications for the nuclear submarine programme, there was no mention of the incident in DNSR's annual report for er it took place, but they were sworn to secrecy. In the same way the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR), a branch of the Health And Safety Executive (HSE), were only told in Summer 2012 on the basis of not passing on the information.

Lt Cdr Rory Stewart, Deputy Superintendent at Vulcan, gave a misleading report to the Dounreay Stakeholder Group at a meeting ion 7 March 2012: "Lt Cdr Stewart stated that there was little new to report. Core burn operations continue to programme".

The incident and the way it has been handled has led to a wide range of criticism. Labour MPs have written to the Defence Committee calling for a House of Commons inquiry. 

Fred Dawson, former head of radiation protection at the MOD, said, "I have difficulty in believing their words of reassurance. If the leak is so insignificant and of no safety significance, why is the MOD planning early replacement of the submarine reactor cores."

Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth, said, "Philip Hammond categorically stated that no radioactivity was released to the atmosphere, and we now know that this is definately not true. Either the MOD misled him or he misled the House of Commons."

John Ainslie, Coordinator of Scottish CND, said "Philip Hammond was clearly deceiving the House of Commons and the public when he said there was 'no detectable radiation leak from the sealed circuit' of the navy reactor at Dounreay.  The radioactive discharge figures show a dramatic increase between 2011 and 2012.  The Ministry of Defence set out to deliberately conceal this incident from the Scottish public and our government.  This shows that none of the assurances that they give on nuclear safety can be trusted. The only safe way forward is for all nuclear submarines and nuclear weapons to be removed from Scotland."

The incident has major implications for the UK nuclear submarine programme. The prototype reactor was fitted with the new Core H fuel core around 2000. Core H is designed to last the full life of an Astute class submarine (25 or 30 years) without refuelling. The prototype is run harder than on a submarine. The plan was to simulate the 25/30 year submarine life by running the prototype for 13 years, from 2002 until 2015. The core cladding failure was detected after 10 years in the prototype. This suggests that it might appear 75% of the way through the projected planned life of the core on a submarine. 

Hammond revealed that the MOD did not know the cause of the failure in the core cladding. He said that it could be due to ageing or a random problem. If the latter then the cladding could fail at any time.

The MOD are considering shutting down the prototype early, so that they can identify the problem sooner, although this would mean that it is not run for the full planned period. The failure was described as a microscopic fracture. If this is the case then it will be very difficult to find and investigate. Shutting down the reactor will take around 3 years. After which the MOD will be able to examine the fuel core.

So far the MOD have decided to refuel the oldest Trident submarine, HMS Vanguard, at a cost of £150 million. They have also allocated £120 million to additional work at Devonport dockyard and the Rolls Royce fuel fabrication plant. The total cost of responding to this incident is likely to be far higher. If they need to refuel the second Trident submarine, HMS Victorious, and then each of the planned 7 Astute class submarines, then the total additional cost is likely to be in the region of £1.5 billion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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