Leading radioactive waste experts have branded the Ministry of Defence’s nuclear sites ‘a disgrace’.
As the world attempts to clean up the huge stockpiles of radioactive materials and old sub-marines languishing on Russia’s northwest coast, and more developing nations launch their own nuclear programmes, the UK military’s own record on dealing with waste has come under fire.
Experts have accused the MoD of having poor standards of maintenance at their sites, and contaminating the land around their facilities.
Both the security and maintenance of radioactive waste is less stringent at military sites than at civilian nuclear plants, said Dr Frank Barnaby, a consultant with the UK’s Oxford Research Group and a specialist in radioactive waste management policy.
He blamed the problem on the high cost of maintaining radioactive waste, and the lack of external regulation. ‘The trouble with the military is they insist on doing it themselves. The oversight committees are special to the MoD, whereas I would prefer it if this were done by civilian authorities,’ he said.
Unlike the process of cleaning up a civilian facility, where the building itself is removed, including radioactive plant and equipment, at military sites the land itself often needs decontaminating, said John Large, leader of the risk assessment team for the sunken Kursk submarine: ‘It’s a disgrace – whenever I come across an MoD site it needs decontaminating.’
According to Large, head of nuclear safety consulting engineers Large & Associates, Fort Halstead in Kent, which has carried out research studies on depleted uranium projectiles, is believed to have heavily contaminated areas. The MoD also had to clean up a nuclear waste site at Ashford in Kent before the Channel Tunnel rail link could be built, and at Woolwich in southeast London, an area now under civilian use, he said.
But the extent of the problem is still unknown, as the MoD does not always make public those sites affected, he said. ‘There are so many examples of their incompetence. Generally the problem is that the MoD has exclusive control over the sites, and the only time you learn of difficulties is when they try and transfer them across for civilian use.’
Large also criticised the storage of old Royal Navy nuclear submarines at Devonport in Plymouth, arguing they pose a significant safety risk. Fires on submarines are notoriously difficult to put out, and the vehicles contain a great deal of flammable material. Even dirt and dust from human skin can be highly flammable, he said.
‘Waste is stockpiling at Devonport. When submarines come in for a refit every seven or eight years all the radioactive parts have to stay there. So we have a radioactive waste store in the middle of a city,’ he said.
A spokeswoman for the MoD said the UK military has to conform to the same health and safety regulations as the rest of the nuclear industry.
But the European Commission last month threatened the government with legal action over its decision to increase the level of nuclear waste pumped into the River Tamar in Plymouth from Devonport without first consulting Europe. The Environment Agency allowed Devonport Dockyard to increase the amount of radioactive tritium it discharges into the river as part of its programme to refit Vanguard-class nuclear submarines.
The Environment Agency is now believed to be considering a plan to discharge the radioactive waste out to sea by pipeline.