British Nuclear Arsenal’s many safety problems

For the British Parliament and much of the media, the problem is mainly the vast amounts of money spent to keep it going. According to the U.K. Ministry of Defense, the program’s total cost is £15-20 billion. Anti-nuclear campaigners give a figure of around £100 billion, give or take. At least, that’s how much it should rack up in costs over its 40 year lifespan.

However, what is less talked about is how both the submarines and the bases that maintain them have suffered from a series of glaring safety mishaps. …

Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde in Scotland — otherwise known as Faslane — is the main base for the Royal Navy’s Trident subs, and has been exceedingly prone to accidents. The latest details come from a Royal Navy sailor-turned-whistleblower William McNeilly who published an 18-page report before going on the run.

Between 2008 and 2013, the Ministry of Defense recorded a total of 316 “nuclear safety incidents.” This overarching categorization includes everything from radioactive contamination to failing to follow standard safety protocols.

Another ministry report released two years prior gave a more detailed breakdown of safety breaches at Faslane. According to its finding, detailed in the Scottish newspaper The Herald, three quarters of the 262 incidents recorded between 2008 and 2012 were due to human error. …

The most frightening of these accidents was the loss of power to the “nuclear ring” reactor cooling system of one submarine for 90 minutes. Had power not been restored, such an incident could have had potentially catastrophic consequences resulting in a major nuclear incident.

The dockyard is within walking distance of the city of Plymouth, home to around 250,000 people. Most of these residents would be in danger in the event of a reactor meltdown.

In 2011, a previously classified document authored by the base’s ex-safety regulator Commodore Andrew McFarlane warned that the reactors powering nuclear submarines based at Devonport were possibly unsafe. …

An additional problem at the dockyard stems from the rusting hulks of older, decommissioned submarines. These are the relics of the U.K.’s Cold War fleet no longer needed since the government scaled back its nuclear capability. There are currently eight laid up submarines at Devonport that still contain nuclear fuel. In the core of each submarine there are about 25 tons worth of nuclear fuel rods.

The process of defueling the submarines ended in 2002 after the contractors working at the site said the facilities were out of date. Yet more submarines keep arriving, with another four due to arrive within the next seven years. The aging Vanguard-class subs will eventually join this collection.