Silent But Deadly
Investigation into nuclear subs, radioactivity and corporate dockyards
Plymouth's long loyalty to the British navy is about to be severely taxed by major nuclear developments in its dockyard. Jim Carey investigates how a huge US-based corporation has the full backing of the UK government for its plans to turn Plymouth into a nuclear waste dump.
26th April 2001
"You can't see it, you can't hear it, you can't feel it. But it can be very dangerous and, if I were in the neighbourhood, I would certainly be concerned."
In May 2000 the huge US corporation which now owns Britain's primary nuclear submarine base at Devonport in Plymouth applied to the Environment Agency for a licence to increase emissions of radioactive tritium. Their intention is to increase emissions into the River Tamar by a staggering 700 percent and into the air via a chimney by 400 per cent. Furthermore, the British navy have decided that nuclear reactor chambers from decommissioned nuclear submarines should now be stored on land. When this work commences, Plymouth looks set to acquire a nuclear waste dump which will turn the city what one local resident describes as, the "Sellafield of the south".
Nuclear physicist Frank Barnaby is one of a number of experts issuing strong words of warning: "I am not a campaigner. My interest is in researching the thing and publishing the results. My view is that the people of Plymouth and around the River Tamar should be making the effort to get information about the consequences."
At a public meeting in the city in June 2000, around 300 angry residents told representatives of the MoD, the Environment Agency and the US-based corporation which runs Plymouth's naval dock, that further nuclear developments weren't welcome. However, although a currently ongoing consultation process purports to be taking the views of the locality into consideration, the US corporation has the full backing of both the British navy and the UK government. "Nothing I say here is intended to prejudice the Environment Agency's independent review of the issues," claimed the Minister of the Armed Forces, John Spellar in January 2001. "Although I and my colleagues in the Department are wholly convinced of the benefits of continuing to develop the arrangements at Devonport." An internal report, written by a Ministry of Defence agency and seen by SQUALL, confirms his dismissive approach: "Disapproval of the local population would be manageable," it states. Not surprisingly, the consultation process is viewed with scorn by local residents: "Whatever is economically expedient to do they will do, regardless of population," says Dr Sandy Mathews, an active local campaigner.
"Until 1992, the navy's approach to decommissioning nuclear submarines was to take these boats to sea and dump them in the mid-Atlantic."
Plymouth's association with, and dependence on, the British Navy stretches back centuries. The ships which defeated the Spanish Armada sailed from the mouth of the River Plym in 1588, Sir Francis Drake was the city's mayor, and the first naval base at Plymouth was established in 1691. So when facilities to deal with nuclear-powered submarines were first installed in the 1970's, environmental concerns were engulfed by an overwhelming sense of loyalty to the navy. "To be against nuclear weapons in Plymouth is like being against snow in Alaska," says local resident and ex-dockyard employee, Ian Avant.
In 1987, management of the naval dockyard was privatised and control passed from the MoD to Devonport Management Ltd (DML), a company majority owned by Brown and Root, a business unit of a huge Texas-based transnational corporation called Halliburton. Over the course of the next seven years employment in the docks fell by over 60 per cent, from 13,500 to 5,500. The figure now stands at just below 4000.
When the Queen launched the first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought, in 1960 no-one devoted much thought to what would be done with them when they were too old to operate. "Until 1992, the navy's approach to decommissioning nuclear submarines was to take these boats to sea and dump them in the mid-Atlantic," says nuclear consultant, John Large. Taken out of active service in 1982, HMS Dreadnought now wallows in a nuclear knackers' yard with six other subs at Rosyth in Scotland. Another four languish in Plymouth at an average storage cost of £50,000 a year each. The fuel rods from these decommissioned subs have all been removed and taken to Sellafield but the highly radioactive reactor chambers which housed them remain locked inside their floating coffins. The problem the navy face is that the graveyard is getting full and, with more nuclear submarines due for decommissioning, storage space will run out by 2012. Furthermore, the cost of ensuring old submarines do not rust in their watery graves and leak radioactivity is bottomless. Every ten years the subs are dry-docked and repainted at the cost of £3 million each; a process necessary to maintain the integrity of their aging hulks. So, in May 2000, the MoD announced proposals to dismantle decommissioned subs and store their reactor chambers on land.
"There's no point the navy saying there is no danger in decommissioning. That is flatulence to say the least. The risk is quite significant."
Back in the early nineties the government decided to concentrate nuclear refitting and decommissioning in one location. The aging Vanguard-class nuclear submarines, which carry Britain's Trident nuclear warheads, are in desperate need of a refit. The government went through the motions of tendering a bid which would decide whether the operations would concentrate in Scotland or in Plymouth. With Halliburton Brown and Root lobbying hard on behalf of its DML subsidiary, Plymouth was the surprising choice. "If you were to undertake a similar venture for a civil nuclear plant then very certainly the accepted siting criteria just would not allow you to locate in a city with over 250,000 people," observes nuclear consultant John Large.
If recently revealed problems with the navy's nuclear submarine cooling systems are as structurally profound as the appear to be, the number of vessels cueing up for decommissioning could increase sooner than expected. Much to the embarrassment of the British navy, a Trafalgar-class nuclear sub, HMS Tireless, currently languishes amidst much diplomatic protest in Gibraltar after a major leak in the reactor coolant system forced the crew to shut down its nuclear reactor. Thanks to a carefully worded MoD press release, the media reported that HMS Tireless had dumped 90 litres of radioactive water coolant at sea before coming into harbour. SQUALL have been reliably informed by officials involved with HMS Tireless's repair that in reality the sub leaked 60 litres an hour for a whole day and only had its reactor shut down when the leak increased to 90 litres an hour for two to three hours. The consequences of these coolant cracks are proving profound for the British navy. Trident-carrying Vanguard-class submarines need at least one Trafalgar class sub like Tireless in order to communicate with the UK when out at sea. Belatedly the navy admitted that all Britain's Trafalgar-class submarines now have cracks in the coolant system and are in desperate need of repair. The work, which has never been done before, is being pioneered at Plymouth. Without a Trafalgar-class submarine to accompany the bigger nuclear warhead-carrying subs, Britain has no nuclear deterrent. Desperate to get one out to sea, the navy took the risk of sending out HMS Triumph from Plymouth without repair. However, it was forced to return almost immediately for crash repairs after it grounded itself on the way out of port. Such brazen disregard for nuclear safety is sending a shudder through those Plymouth residents aware of what is happening.
Nuclear reactor compartments constitute intermediate level nuclear waste. If stored on land, they represent a highly hazardous material requiring multiple risk assessments covering terrorist access, radioactive leakage and aircraft crash. The top and tail process of carving up an old submarine and removing its reactor chamber is also fraught with the danger of fire. Indeed the most common cause of submarine sinkage is fire. As John Large, a former nuclear consultant at Devonport and presently employed by the government in Gibraltar to oversee HMS Tireless's repair, told SQUALL: "There's no point the navy saying there is no danger in decommissioning. That is flatulence to say the least. The risk is quite significant."
Local MP Colin Breed was assured by the Minister for the Armed Forces, John Speller in early January 2001 that "no specific sites had been recommended" for onland storage. Contrary to this emphatic denial, the Ship's Support Agency - an MoD unit responsible for determining and directing provision of material support to the navy - have surveyed specific sites for onland storage. In an internal report seen by SQUALL called the Isolus Investigation, the Agency examines four locations for onland storage. Every one of them is within Plymouth itself. Two of the sites, Western Mill and Southyard are within a few hundred yards of housing estates whilst a third site at Bull Point is just 400 yards from Barne Barton Primary School and nursery unit with its 400 pupils. Once onland storage is commenced, there could be as many as 30 reactor units stored for between 60-100 years in any of these four locations. There is no plan for what happens to them after that.
Although the MoD, the city council and DML argue that procedures for dealing with a nuclear accident are adequate, some local professionals are concerned about what would happen in an emergency. "We've got our own nuclear alarm, our own nuclear warning signs and have a nuclear drill once a year," says Ken Tucker, Chairman of Barne Barton's board of governors. Situated inside the 2km immediate risk zone, the school already has a supply of potassium iodate tablets which provide partial protection against thyroid cancer if taken quickly after a nuclear accident. "We had to fight to get them," says Tucker. "The health authority originally said that no-one could have them, that they had to be held and only distributed in the case of emergency. The MoD say they have enough people to distribute them but that is absolute nonsense. In the middle of an emergency what would they do? Put them through doors?" Health centres in Plymouth also hold potassium iodate pills although one senior nurse, who refused to be named, told SQUALL that the only procedural instruction he'd received in the case of nuclear accident is one page of guidance notes sent with the tablets. Among the sparse instructions it says the tablets are only highly effective if taken within two hours of exposure and that they "are not effective for people in an area contaminated with radiation or those outdoors not taking shelter." Tucked away on the city council's website is advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear accident. Few local people know it's there and even residents close to the docks are not involved in emergency drill exercises. If they want potassium iodate tablets they have to write in for them.
The safety record of the corporation which owns Plymouth's naval docks doesn't offer much comfort to the city's residents either. Just two years before taking over dock management, Halliburton Brown and Root was forced to stump up $750 million to settle a claim over their mismanagement of a nuclear project in Texas. As part of the Hunting BRAE consortium they were also responsible for managing the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. However, after a farcical series of radioactive leaks and mishaps in the 1990's, Hunting BRAE's Aldermaston contract was not renewed last year. When SQUALL asked Peter Whitehouse, DML's Director of Corporate Development, about his parent company's safety record, he insisted: "The route to the assurance of safety is nothing to do with ownership. DML is a self-contained entity, an independent operation not affected in any shape or form by our corporate shareholders." However, the truth is not that clear cut. DML's executive chairman, Tony Pryor, is also Halliburton Brown and Root's Chief Operating Officer for Europe and Africa and was previously a director at Hunting BRAE.
The danger of tritium is in its propensity to bind with organic material when ingested, inhaled or absorbed, and so produce an internal radiation.
The other radioactive threat which Plymouth residents are imminently to be exposed to, is a massive increase in the emission of tritium into the River Tamar which runs through the city, and into the air via a chimney. Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen and binds easily with oxygen to form tritiated water. It is a radionuclide copiously present in waste produced by the nuclear industry and builds up in water used in reactor coolant systems on nuclear submarines. In older nuclear submarines this tritiated water was flushed into the ocean. However, in the newer Vanguard-class nuclear submarines, which carry Britain's Trident nuclear warheads, the water is reused again and again in the coolant system and not flushed out at sea. It is thought this is to avoid leaving what is termed a 'nuclear footprint', a detectable radioactive trace revealing the submarine's location. As such the water is even more tritiated than usual by the time the vessel comes into port. When DML begin refitting Vanguard-class nuclear subs at the beginning of 2002, the company want to increase the amount of tritiated coolant water it pushes out into the environment. A 700 per cent increase into the river and a 400 per cent increase into the air.
Tritium waste could be one of the great social disasters of our century if an increasing body of scientific evidence is to be believed. Dr Chris Busby is a chemical physics researcher and one the UK's most learned experts on the effects of low level radiation. Most recently he highlighted the hazards of the depleted uranium used in the bombs dropped on Yugoslavia. "The problem with tritium is that it is underestimated as a hazard," Busby told SQUALL. "As a form of hydrogen it becomes very easily incorporated into biological molecules. The whole of life works on exchangeable hydrogens. But when tritium decays it becomes Helium so any molecule the tritium was located in would just collapse. This is a method of amplifying its affect within the body which is absolutely monumental."
"We have been arguing for a very long time that the way in which the consequence of radiation exposure is assessed is wrong."
And here lies the potential for a failure of radiological protection which could indeed be of monumental proportions. The bio-hazard rating of radioactive material is based solely on external exposure to the energy of radioactive decay. It is the standard mechanism by which the National Radiological Protection Board determines whether nuclear pollution will affect human beings and the eco-system. However, the danger of tritium is in its propensity to bind with organic material when ingested, inhaled or absorbed, and so produce an internal radiation. "It's all about someone standing in front of a fire and warming themselves but as soon as you eat a hot coal the model falls down," says Busby. Increasing bodies of evidence suggests this method of risk assessment is fundamentally flawed.
Tritium doesn't have much energy. When an electron is thrown out during its radioactive decay it doesn't travel far. As such all the usual ways of measuring its potential as a bio-hazard register it as a low radioactive substance without much bio-consequence. Using such criteria the nuclear industry and its political apologists dismiss the implications of tritium by saying 'you can't detect it therefore its not harmful'. When armed forces minister, John Spellar, defended DML's application to increase tritium emissions, he claimed there was nothing to worry about because "the resulting radiation exposure will be virtually indistinguishable from natural background radiation levels." But as nuclear physicist Frank Barnaby points out "It's a wee bit of a meaningless statement really because background radiation goes into your body from the outside - it's external radiation. The problem with tritium is that it may get into the body through ingestion or inhalation and when in the body the consequence may be quite serious..more serious than the authorities admit."
"I would argue that the whole thing is driven by economics rather than public safety,"
What now seems clear from research on tritium is that its low energy decay could in fact magnify rather than diminish its potential as a biohazard. "The entire energy of the electron given off when tritium decays is absorbed in a very short distance," explains Barnaby. "Less distance than the diameter of a DNA molecule. Tritium being hydrogen may be taken up the DNA and then the radiation it gives off could damage the DNA molecule and produce either a cancer in the individual or a genetic effect."
"You could argue that high energy radioactive decays are better because they kill the cell outright and you don't get cancer," concords Dr Chris Busby. "Tritium has this tiny energy which will damage rather than kill the cell. We have been arguing for a very long time that the way in which the consequence of radiation exposure is assessed is wrong."
Dr Busby and his research associates at the independent nuclear research organisation GreenAudit, conducted a study comparing the predicted and actual incidence of leukemia in children exposed to Chernobyl fallout whilst in their mother's womb. In a paper published in the scientific journal Energy and Environment in June 2000, they revealed that the predictions made using the current criteria to assess biohazard proved wrong by a phenomenally significant factor of one to a hundred. This research was enough to persuade the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Meacher, to endure consternation in Europe by opposing moves to raise the threshold of at tritium emission which require official permission. The Radioactive Substances Act 1993 requires permission to be sought by the nuclear industry if it intends to release more than 400 becqerels per kg into the environment. However, an appendix to the Euratom directive signed in 1996 and due to become law for European member states in May 2001, proposed to raise the tritium emission threshold from 400 to a staggering 10 million becqerels per kg; a 25,000 per cent increase in the amount of tritium the nuclear industry would be able to push out into the environment without requiring an environmental licence or official permission. "The nuclear industry managed to get their stooges into the European Commission and slip a really dodgy appendix into this Euratom basic safety standard," says Busby. "We had a go at Meacher and persuaded him that it was extremely dangerous to do this and he has decided to stick with the 400 becqerel per kg. Now the nuclear industry are moaning like hell about this because their nuclear stuff is saturated with tritium and they can't get rid of it."
The lengths to which the nuclear industry will go to cover up the health consequences of its disposal mechanisms know few bounds and the increasing privatisation of the UK's nuclear submarine fleet is a further step along the road to loosening the requirement for public accountability. "I would argue that the whole thing is driven by economics rather than public safety," says Frank Barnaby, once a nuclear physicist at Aldermaston.
In order to defend their city from imminent nuclear threat a group of actively concerned Plymouth residents have formed themselves into a group calling itself CANSAR (Campaign Against Nuclear Storage and Radiation). "It's not so much for me as for my daughters and the future of Plymouth," confirms Ian Avant, one of CANSAR's prime movers. But in a city still blindly loyal to the navy, with a docks managed by a huge US corporation with both influential economic clout and the full backing of the MoD, CANSAR has its work cut out for it. However, they do have a weapon of their own as their lawyer, Phil Shiner explained to SQUALL: "We require a public enquiry which complies with the right to be heard under the European convention on human rights. That means it must be fair public, independent and impartial. At the moment what we will get is the Environment Agency making a decision behind closed doors and then putting that decision in writing." If they are not granted a public enquiry a judicial review will be sought which, if successful, could revolutionise the entire concept of public consultation. "I don't really think there is an answer to our case," says Shiner. If their legal action fails, however, the US corporation and the British navy will be recklessly exposing Plymouth to significant risks of radioactive contamination. "You have to make sure that a future generation and its policy and regimes can handle what we are going to pass on to them," says nuclear consultant John Large. "I haven't seen anything in the thinking and the approach of the MoD so far to indicate that this is being done."
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