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Nuclear submarines banned from Highland Loch

The Ministry of Defence have a long-standing arrangement to berth nuclear-powered submarines in Loch Ewe, but they have not been permitted to visit there since 2008 because there are major flaws in the safety scheme for dealing with any nuclear accident in the area.

Between 13 and 15 May 2008 Exercise Highport took place at Highland Council's emergency bunker in Inverness, with some activity on-site at Loch Ewe and at a second berth in Broadford Bay. The exercise tested the arrangments for responding to a nuclear incident and found them wanting.


The Navy assume that the response to the incident would be co-ordinated from within their Depot at Loch Ewe. However this would be inside the 2 kilometer exclusion zone.  The local police would not go to this headquarters, but would set up an alternative command post outside the exclusion zone.

The plans assume that the crew of the submarine would be available to assist in the response on land, but it was not clear how they would get from the mooring buoy to shore.  Independent nuclear consultant John Large said the arrangements were like "Dad's Army" and that the crew would be told "swim for it, lads".

The report pointed out that it would be essential that an emergency support tug was available.

A letter from the Health and Safety Executive on 15th July 2008 revealed that the plans drawn up by the Navy were not consistent with the Council's "off-site" plan.  It said:

"The Operators plans do not support the off-site plans; indeed they are contradictory at times
"There are discrepencies and contradictions in the locations and responsibilities of key individuals
"The arrangements for communication and cooperation with civil authorities are unclear ..
"The arrangements for the management of interventions, especially involving non-MOD and contractor personnel are unclear".

The letter summed up the problems as:

"the operators plan was short on detail and .. it did not transfer seamlessly into the off site plan developed by the local authority".

The criticisms were aimed at weaknesses in the Navy's Operational plan, rather than Highland Council's scheme.

As a result the Health and Safety Executive and the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) concluded that the plans "did not constitute adequate arrangements for the protection of the workforce and public" and that use of both Broadford Bay and Loch Ewe should be suspended.

On 29 July 2008 the Navy Command decided that Broadford Bay was "no longer required as a Nuclear Powered Warship Operational Berth". 

On 22 October 2010 the Navy's newest submarine, HMS Astute, ran aground on the Isle of Skye. Following this Angus Robertson MP asked if the vessel had made use of Loch Ewe.  In his reply on 11 November 2010 Peter Luff, the junior Defence Minister, refered to Loch Ewe as an "operational berth" and gave no indication to Parliament that use of the facility had been suspended on safety grounds.

The ban on submarine visits to Loch Ewe remains in place.

Jean Urquhart, SNP councillor for Wester Ross, accused the MOD of "high-handed behaviour" and said "they do what they like and don't communicate with local folk".

John Ainslie, Coordinator of Scottish CND, said that nucleaer submarines "should not be prowling around the Minches if there is nowhere they can safety anchor when something goes wrong".

(Also reported by Rob Edwards in the Sunday Herald 13 March 2011)