Statement on incident at Vulcan Nuclear Test Establishment
Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment Richard Lochhead
Tuesday March 11, 2014
Presiding Officer, I would like to update the Chamber about events that have emerged concerning the Ministry of Defence’s Vulcan test reactor at Dounreay, and how these activities are regulated in Scotland.
When we look at what has unfolded over the past few days, we see evidence of the MoD’s culture of secrecy and cover-ups when what we need is openness and transparency.
This has to concern this Chamber, and all of Scotland.
The MoD has on Scottish soil, and in Scottish waters, an operational test reactor; a fleet of redundant submarines awaiting dismantling; and an operational fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, four of which are Trident armed. All significant environmental hazards.
Vulcan is the test-bed for the pressurised water reactors used in Britain’s nuclear submarines. As the Defence Secretary put it, the reactors at Vulcan are “hammered”, so that any faults will show up there rather than in an operational submarine.
In January 2012, low levels of radioactivity were detected in the cooling water of the reactor.
This took place in a sealed circuit, and we were reassured by the Ministry of Defence last week that there was no detectable radiation leak from that circuit.
However, there should be no radioactivity in the cooling water, and the incident was of such significance that the reactor was shut down for much of 2012 until tests and trials could be carried out.
The reactor was only restarted in November 2012 – 10 months later.
The MoD believe that the problem lay in a microscopic breach of fuel element cladding, but they do not know what caused that breach.
Nevertheless, they appear to be confident that the reactor can be operated safely until decommissioning begins next year.
The Defence Secretary indicated that this incident would be rated at Level 0 on the 8-point International Nuclear Event Scale, indicating that it is a mere “Anomaly” with no safety significance.
Whilst that may sound somewhat reassuring, the incident led to the significant decision to shut down the reactor as a precaution for 10 months.
During 2012, SEPA became aware of an increase in discharges of radioactive gases from the site.
Those discharges, at 43% of the annual limit, were within the threshold permitted by SEPA.
However, they were much higher than the previous year, when emissions were only 4% of the permitted limit.
We now understand that this was probably due to the testing that took place following the shut-down.
That is why the Defence Secretary was wrong when he told the House of Commons that there had been “no measurable change in the radiation discharge” – a publicly reported ten-fold increase is most certainly measurable and I am sure he will want to correct the record.
SEPA were first contacted by the MoD in September 2012 seeking a meeting, but with no details being divulged at that point.
A SEPA officer responsible for Vulcan was then summoned to a meeting which took place on 11 December at the site.
At that meeting, SEPA were told about the incident; the tests that had been carried out; and the suspected cause.
By then the incident had been classified as one with no safety or environmental impact, and the MoD instructed that the issue must be kept on a strict need to know basis.
Accordingly, neither SEPA senior managers nor the Scottish Government were informed.
The UK Government’s own Office for Nuclear Regulation similarly confirmed what was said to SEPA as according to their own spokesperson, “We were required to keep the information on a need to know basis for security reasons.”
We now know that SEPA and Ministers weren’t the only victims of the UK Government’s veil of secrecy.
When my own officials visited the site in February 2012 to discuss its decommissioning, there was no mention of any problem.
Senior representatives from the Vulcan site also regularly attend the Dounreay Stakeholder Group, and provide updates on matters of interest to the local community.
It is instructive to look back at the minutes, to see what Vulcan were reporting.
On 25 April, when the reactor had been shut down for more than 3 months, the Commander informed the meeting that “it was business as usual”. That was clearly not the case.
And at the June meeting of the full Stakeholder Group, it was reported that “reactor operations were continuing as per programme”.
This pattern followed in subsequent meetings - there was no problem, everything was to schedule.
However, what has unfolded shows us that everything was far from right and the Dounreay Stakeholder group, representing the local community, as well as the rest of Scotland, had been kept in the dark.
Last Thursday morning, I received a call from Philip Dunne MP, the junior Defence Minister, to inform me that, in matter of minutes, his Secretary of State was to make a statement on Nuclear Submarines.
Rather than provide reassurance, this last gasp sharing of information raises questions about the secrecy of the past two years.
In the aftermath of his statement, in an attempt to shift the focus, the Secretary of State has sought to pin the blame on SEPA for not notifying Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament.
But SEPA were told to keep the issue on a strict need to know basis.
Local SEPA staff were put in an invidious position: unable to disclose what they were told because of the limitations imposed by the MoD.
The Agreement between the MoD and SEPA does not allow them to pass on information on operational changes in the reactor such that occurred in January 2012.
By the time SEPA were eventually informed of the problems it was recognised that there had not been a formal breach of emission limits.
It is important to state that it was not for SEPA to pass on information on this incident – indeed they were prevented from doing so under the Agreement between the MoD and SEPA.
Let’s be clear.
It was the responsibility of the MoD and the UK Government to inform the local community, this Parliament, and the Government, of the events at the test facility.
The failure to inform Scottish Ministers does, of course, fly in the face of the Memorandum of Understanding on Devolution, which commits all four administrations to the principle of good communication, especially where one administration’s work may have some bearing on the responsibilities of another.
Paragraph 5 states explicitly that it is the responsibility of each administration to alert others as soon as practicable to relevant developments within their areas of responsibility.
By informing SEPA, however belatedly, the MoD implicitly recognise what happened at Vulcan impacted on environmental matters – matters which are the responsibility of this Parliament.
I repeat, the onus was on the MoD, not SEPA, to alert us.
In this, they failed.
SEPA’s role under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 is to regulate the keeping and use of radioactive material and the accumulation and disposal of radioactive waste.
For sites with a nuclear licence, the Office for Nuclear Regulation regulates most activities on site, with SEPA regulating emissions to the environment and waste.
But SEPA’s role on military sites such as Vulcan is different.
The Act does not apply to premises used for defence purposes, so SEPA has no power to regulate. Basically the MOD has a Crown exemption from the legislation that applies to everyone else.
Instead, there is only a voluntary agreement between the MoD and SEPA which implements an equivalent regime – essentially SEPA issue letters rather than the legally binding authorisations or registrations.
In other words, SEPA regulate by invitation rather than by right, and rely on the MoD’s goodwill.
This exemption from radioactive substances legislation for defence establishments is an anomaly.
No other environmental protection legislation has similar Crown exemption, not even for civil nuclear establishments such as the main Dounreay site.
And there is no good reason that radioactive substances should be treated any differently from other risks to the environment.
Indeed, defence establishments should be treated every bit as seriously.
This Parliament has recently passed the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014, which allows us to introduce a new consistent, coherent, proportionate and transparent environmental regulation regime for Scotland.
We want to get rid of anomalies like Crown exemption and treat all those subject to regulation even-handedly.
We therefore propose to use the forthcoming regulations under the Regulatory Reform Act to leave behind the Crown exemption for MoD sites.
We are fortunate that what we are discussing today is not a nuclear incident, but the failure of the UK Government to be open and transparent about an incident at Vulcan.
Where we can act to restore public confidence, in shedding the Crown exemption, we will.
But the MoD’s handling of it – keeping SEPA in the dark for months, and Ministers, Parliamentarians and the public for much longer – is a major concern.
The MoD has again demonstrated a deep-seated culture of secrecy.
This raises questions about what else they know but are not telling us.
The MoD is in control of facilities which present a great potential hazard in Scotland and it appears that we cannot rely on them to volunteer information.
Presiding Officer - on the 3rd anniversary of the disaster at Fukushima we need no reminding of what can happen when nuclear plants go wrong.
The UK Government owe the people of Scotland an apology for the Vulcan incident, and far greater openness in the future about their nuclear activities in Scotland.