Navy plan for nuclear sub berths raises safety fears


Lantern Swinger
From today's Telegraph

Navy plan for nuclear sub berths raises safety fears
By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
(Filed: 20/02/2006)

The Royal Navy is to install a series of nuclear submarine berths around Britain in a move that local authorities are calling the equivalent of "putting a nuclear reactor in the middle of town".

Councils have been told to draw up a long list of contingency plans in case of an emergency to provide back-up for the new "Z-berths".

Gibraltar was less than happy when HMS Tireless used its dock when it had reactor problems
Schools in the ports will be issued with potassium iodide tablets designed to lessen the effects of radiation exposure as part of the plans in the 200-page Radiation Emergency Preparedness and Public Information Regulations.

The Navy has traditionally housed its submarines at Plymouth and at Faslane, near Glasgow, but has decided to increase the locations where a boat can pick up provisions or sailors or tie up in an emergency. During the Cold War the Navy had numerous Z-berths around the country, but these were closed as the Soviet threat faded. Following a review, however, new berths are to be installed in Southampton, Portland and Liverpool, with another one possibly on the East coast.

An emergency two years ago on board the Chicoutimi, a diesel submarine, is also thought to have influenced the decision. Britain had just sold the vessel to Canada when it caught fire off Northern Ireland, leading to the death of one sailor.

Stewart Kemp, the secretary for Nuclear Free Local Authorities, said people would not approve of the Navy bringing a nuclear reactor into their towns.

"There is a reactor safety issue, as witnessed a few years ago with HMS Tireless in Gibraltar," he said. "This raises the same issues as that of a community living next to a nuclear power station and it is not for nothing that these are in remote areas.

"One of the riskiest times for a nuclear reactor is when it is powering up and powering down, which is what happens when it comes into port."

While no engineering work or ammunition replenishment will be carried out, the boats, which are expected to dock about once every two years, will require MoD police for security and the emergency services on standby. No submarines armed with nuclear warheads will use the ports.

A spokesman for Southampton, which should have its Z-Berth operational later this year, said: "We are going through emergency response exercises but this adds to the burden as there is a lot of work in preparing the plan, which includes a significant amount of medical work."

When a submarine comes into port, potassium iodide pills, which are used to prevent thyroid cancer for people exposed to radioactive iodides, will have to be distributed to schools and residents near the base.

A spokesman for the Navy said: "The Royal Navy has an essential role in the protection of the UK homeland. A key element of this is the ability to be able to operate, with unhindered flexibility, around the full extent of our coastline, including the potential to use berthing facilities in UK commercial ports where and when necessary.

"No submarine visit will take place until the plan has been demonstrated to and approved by the Health and Safety Executive."

He added that in 40 years of operating nuclear submarines the Navy had never had a reactor accident.


Book Reviewer
Press release re Z berth at Portland.

PR 739
PR 739 13 December 2005 For immediate release

Nuclear submarines return to Portland

The Royal Navy has announced plans for a return to Portland, earmarking the port to host future occasional visits by nuclear-powered submarines.

As part of the Ministry of Defence’s aim to give the Royal Navy more strategic flexibility in using commercial facilities around the UK, the port will act as a ‘Z-berth’. This means that nuclear vessels will stop there a couple of times a year for routine operational purposes. No nuclear engineering work will take place.

Local authorities have no say over this decision, but – following recent changes to government legislation – it is their responsibility to develop off-site emergency response plans in the highly unlikely event of an incident.

As a result, Dorset County Council and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council will work closely with the Royal Navy to put in place emergency arrangements and countermeasures to ensure the best possible level of public protection.

Similar plans are already in place, or in continuing development, to cover potential emergencies at major industrial locations in Dorset. These include the BP Wytch Farm gathering station near Corfe Castle, and the Ministry of Defence site at West Moors. The arrangements for Portland will work in the same way, and involve close liaison with agencies such as the emergency services, the Dorset Health Protection Unit, local authorities and the Environment Agency.

Fleet Command’s submarine engineering staff officer Captain Keith Beckett was in Dorchester yesterday (Monday, 12 December) to brief members from both councils on the proposals, and explain the need for an off-site emergency plan.

The Royal Navy fleet has use of Z-berths all around the coastline, including Liverpool, Southampton and Portsmouth. Nuclear submarines visited Portland on numerous occasions during the 1980s when the Royal Navy had a permanent base at the port.

Response plans will be developed and made public in 2006, well ahead of any visit. Exercises will be carried out to check the effectiveness of the arrangements, and plans will be reviewed and tested every three years.

Adam Ingram, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, said:

“Nuclear submarines play a key role in the defence of the UK and the Royal Navy’s ability to operate with full flexibility around the entire UK coastline is crucial. This development would reaffirm the Royal Navy’s historic links to Portland and allow our submarines to visit Portland Port.

“Our nuclear submarines are operated to the very highest safety standards but I understand that some people may still have concerns. It is worth noting that, thanks to stringent safety procedures, in the 40 years the Royal Navy has operated nuclear submarines there has never been a reactor accident and safety remains our highest priority.

“I will ensure that we give the local authorities all possible assistance as work on this applicaion progresses.â€