Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will update the chamber about details that have emerged concerning events at the Ministry of Defence’s Vulcan test reactor at Dounreay and how activities there are regulated in Scotland.
I am afraid that 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. That has to concern this chamber and, indeed, all 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. That 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 restarted only in November 2012—10 months later. The MOD believes that the problem lay in a microscopic breach of fuel element cladding, but it does not know what caused that breach. Nevertheless, it appears to be confident that the reactor can be operated safely until decommissioning begins, which is scheduled for next year.
The Secretary of State for Defence said that the incident would be rated at level zero on the eight-point international nuclear event scale, indicating that it is a mere “anomaly”, to use his word, with no safety significance. While that may sound somewhat reassuring, as I said, the incident led to the decision to shut down the reactor as a precaution for 10 months.
During 2012, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency—our environment agency—became aware of an increase in discharges of radioactive gases from the site. Those discharges, at 43 per cent of the annual limit, were within the threshold permitted by SEPA, but they were much higher than the previous year, when emissions were only 4 per cent of the permitted limit. We now understand that the increase in gas discharges was probably due to the testing that took place following the shut-down, so the defence secretary was plain wrong when he told the House of Commons that there had been
“no measurable change in the radiation discharge”.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 6 March 2014; Vol 576, c 1085.]
A publicly reported tenfold increase is almost certainly measurable and I am sure that he will want to acknowledge that and set the record straight.
I turn to SEPA’s role. The MOD first contacted our environment agency’s local officer in September 2012, seeking a meeting, but no details were divulged at that point. A SEPA officer responsible for Vulcan was then summoned to a meeting that took place at the site on 11 December 2012. At that meeting, SEPA was 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 office for nuclear regulation similarly confirmed what was said to SEPA as, according to the ONR’s spokesperson:
“We were required to keep the information on a need to know basis for security reasons.”
We now know that SEPA and ministers were not the only victims of the UK Government’s veil of secrecy: when my officials visited the site in February 2012 to discuss its decommissioning there was no mention whatsoever of any problem.
Senior representatives from the Vulcan site 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 group’s minutes, to see what Vulcan was reporting. On 25 April, when the reactor had been shut down for more than three months, the commander informed the meeting that
“it was business as usual”.
That was clearly not the case. At the June meeting of the full stakeholder group it was reported that
“reactor operations were continuing as per programme”.
That 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 that the Dounreay stakeholder group representing the local community, and 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 a matter of minutes the Secretary of State for Defence was to make a statement in the House of Commons on nuclear submarines. Rather than provide reassurance, that 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 the Scottish ministers or the Scottish Parliament. However, SEPA was told to keep the issue on a strict need-to-know basis.
Local SEPA staff were put in an invidious position: they were 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 SEPA to pass on information on operational changes in the reactor, such as those that occurred in January 2012. By the time SEPA was 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 the incident; indeed it was prevented from doing so under the agreement between the MOD and SEPA. Let us 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—no one else.
The failure to inform the Scottish ministers flies in the face of the memorandum of understanding on devolution, which commits all four administrations to the principle of good communication, especially when one administration’s work may have some bearing on the responsibilities of another. Paragraph 5 states explicitly that it is the responsibility of administrations
“to alert each other as soon as practicable to relevant developments within their areas of responsibility”.
By eventually informing SEPA 10 months after the event, the MOD implicitly recognised that what had happened at Vulcan impacted on environmental matters—matters that are the responsibility of this Parliament. I repeat that the onus was on the MOD, not SEPA, to alert us and in that it 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.
However, SEPA’s role on military sites such as Vulcan is different. The 1993 act does not apply to premises used for defence purposes, so SEPA has no power to regulate them. 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 that implements an equivalent regime. In essence, SEPA issues letters rather than legally binding authorisations or registrations. In other words, SEPA regulates by invitation rather than by right and relies on the MOD’s goodwill. The exemption from radioactive substances legislation for defence establishments is an anomaly and the MOD has abused it. No other environmental protection legislation provides similar Crown exemption, not even for civil nuclear establishments such as the main Dounreay site. There is no good reason why radioactive substances should be treated any differently from other risks to the environment, and defence establishments should be treated every bit as seriously.
The Scottish Parliament 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 such as Crown exemption and treat all areas that are subject to regulation even-handedly, so we propose to use the regulations that are forthcoming under the 2014 act to leave behind the Crown exemption for MOD sites.
We are fortunate that we are not discussing a harmful nuclear incident, but we are addressing the UK Government’s failure 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 do so. However, the MOD’s handling of the situation—which involved keeping SEPA in the dark for months, and ministers, parliamentarians and the public in the dark for much longer—is a major concern. The MOD has again demonstrated a deep-seated culture of secrecy, which raises questions about what else it knows but is not telling us. The MOD is in control of facilities that present a great potential hazard in Scotland and it appears that we cannot rely on it to volunteer information.
Today, on the third anniversary of the disaster at Fukushima, we need no reminding what can happen when nuclear plants go wrong. The UK Government owes the people of Scotland an apology for the Vulcan incident, and it owes us far greater openness in the future about its nuclear activities in Scotland.