House of Lords Debate, Nuclear Submarines — Statement – Defence, 6 Mar 2014

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, I am repeating a Statement made in the House of Commons:

“Mr Speaker, before I make my Statement, I am sure the House will want to join me in sending condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from 32 Engineer Regiment who died while on duty in Helmand province yesterday as a result of non-battle-related injuries sustained in Camp Bastion. The incident is not believed to have involved any enemy action. The serviceman’s next of kin have been informed and have requested the customary 24-hour delay before further details are released.

With permission, I wish to inform the House that I have decided to refuel the nuclear reactor in HMS ‘Vanguard’, one of the United Kingdom’s four ballistic missile submarines, during its planned deep-maintenance period, which begins in 2015. This will be the second time ‘Vanguard’’s reactor has been refuelled since it entered service in 1993. I will explain to the House now why I have reached this decision to conduct a second refuelling.

Alongside the operational reactors on board our ballistic missile submarines, a prototype reactor of the same class has been running at the naval reactor test establishment at Dounreay in Scotland since 2002. Its purpose is to help us assess how the reactor cores within our submarines will perform over time. It has therefore been run for significantly longer periods and at a significantly higher intensity than those cores of the same type in our submarines, to allow us to identify early any age or use-related issues that may arise later in the lives of the operational reactor cores.

In January 2012, low levels of radioactivity were detected in the cooling water surrounding the prototype core. These low levels of radioactivity are a normal product of the nuclear reaction that takes place within the fuel, but they would not normally enter the cooling water. This water is contained within the sealed reactor circuit, and I can reassure the House that there has been no detectable radiation leak from that sealed circuit.

The independent Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency have been kept informed. When the coolant radioactivity was first detected, the reactor was shut down as a precaution. Following investigations and a series of trials, and with the agreement of the relevant regulator, the reactor was restarted in November 2012 and is continuing to operate safely. Both radiation exposure for workers at the site and discharges from the site have remained well inside the strictly prescribed limits set by the regulators. Indeed, against the International Atomic Energy Agency’s measurement scale for nuclear-related events this issue is classed as level 0, described by the agency as:

‘Below scale … No safety significance’.

The naval reactor test establishment is, and remains, a very safe and low-risk site.

But clearly, the fact that low levels of radioactivity have been detected in the coolant water means that the reactor is not operating exactly as planned. As you would expect, we have conducted extensive investigations to seek to determine how the radioactivity has entered the cooling water. We now believe that this is due to a microscopic breach in a small area of the metal cladding that surrounds one fuel element within the core of the reactor. It is not yet clear why this breach has occurred. It may be related to the age of the reactor, a function of the high-intensity use to which we have subjected the test reactor, or a random event. We do not yet know.

On current plans the Dounreay test reactor will start to be decommissioned in 2015. We are confident that the reactor can be operated safely until that date.

We may decide to bring forward decommissioning if it will allow us to better understand the causes of this breach by examination of the reactor core.

This occurrence does not present any safety risk. It does, however, potentially present additional risk to future submarine availability. Consequently, I have had to consider carefully the implications for both the Vanguard-class and the Astute-class submarines, which use the same design of reactor core.

We constantly monitor our submarine reactors. We have never detected a similar occurrence to that found in the prototype reactor, and we are confident that if one did occur we would detect it straightaway.

But we now have to consider the possibility, however remote, that the useful operating life of this particular design of core may not be as long as previously expected. As a result, I have decided that, as a precautionary measure, we should refuel HMS ‘Vanguard’, the oldest SSBN, and the one with the ‘highest mileage’ on her reactor, as it were, when she enters her scheduled deep maintenance period in 2015. This is the responsible option: replacing the core on a precautionary basis at the next opportunity that arises, rather than waiting to see if the core needs to be replaced at a later date, which would mean returning ‘Vanguard’ for a period of unscheduled deep maintenance, potentially putting at risk the resilience of our ballistic missile submarine operations.

The refuelling will increase our confidence that ‘Vanguard’ will be able to operate effectively and safely until the planned fleet of Successor submarines begins to be delivered from 2028. The refuelling will be conducted within the currently planned dry-dock maintenance period for ‘Vanguard’, which starts in late 2015 and will last for around three and a half years, and is therefore expected to have no impact on deterrent operations. The additional cost of refuelling ‘Vanguard’ is estimated to be around £120 million over the next six years.

A decision on whether to refuel the next oldest submarine, HMS ‘Victorious’, when she enters her next planned deep maintenance period, will not be needed until 2018. It will be informed by further analysis of the data from the naval reactor at Dounreay and examination of the core after the reactor is decommissioned. I have decided that, in the mean time, and again on a precautionary basis, we will take the steps necessary to keep open the option of refuelling ‘Victorious’. This will include investment at Devonport and at the reactor plant at Raynesway in Derby to preserve our ability to conduct nuclear refuelling into the future. The total cost of this investment is still being scoped, but is expected to be of the order of £150 million.

Those costs will be met from existing provision for financial risk in the submarine programme budget. They represent substantially less than 10% of that risk provision and will not impact on the more than £4 billion of contingency that we are holding in the overall defence equipment plan.

The implications for the Astute-class submarine will be the subject of further analysis, particularly once we have had the opportunity to examine the core from Dounreay. But, as the Astutes are only now entering service and thus their cores have seen far less operation, a decision on whether or not to refuel any of them will not be needed for many years.

These decisions do not affect our plans for the Successor submarine that will replace the Vanguard class. Refuelling HMS ‘Vanguard’ does not enable us to further extend the overall life of the submarine, which is limited by a number of factors other than the age of the reactor, nor do they have any implications for our confidence in the reactor that we are developing for the Successor submarine, which is based on a completely different design.

Finally, the House will wish to understand that our naval reactor cores are a highly specialised, UK-bespoke maritime design and there is no read-across from this occurrence to the performance of the naval reactors operated by other countries, or indeed reactors operating in the UK civil nuclear sector.

The safety of the UK’s naval nuclear reactor at the test establishment at Dounreay and on our submarines is of critical importance to us, as is the maintenance of continuous at sea deterrence. That is why I have taken the decision to apply the precautionary principle, even though there is no evidence at this stage that the problem detected with the test reactor is likely to present in the operational reactors. We will continue to work with the independent military and civil regulators to ensure the continuing safety of nuclear operations at Dounreay, Devonport, Faslane and at sea. The Government are committed to maintaining our nuclear deterrent as the ultimate guarantee of the UK’s sovereignty and freedom of action against threats of nuclear aggression, wherever they may come from. Our submarine-based, continuous at-sea deterrent remains the most capable and cost-effective way of doing that. The decisions that I have announced today are responsible and precautionary and will ensure our ability safely to maintain the UK’s nuclear deterrent into the future”.

I commend this Statement to the House.

Lord Rosser (Labour)
My Lords, like the Minister, we would like to express our sincere condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from 32 Engineer Regiment who died yesterday while on duty with our Armed Forces.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier today in the other place by the Secretary of State. I wish to make a few points and ask one or two questions as well. The purpose of the prototype reactor at Dounreay is to identify at an early stage any age-related or use-related issues that may arise at a later stage in the lives of the operational reactor cores. To the extent that that is what appears to have happened means that the prototype reactor has served the purpose for which it has been running at a higher intensity and for much longer periods than those similar cores in our submarines. I note that the Statement says that the low levels of radioactivity detected are at the levels that would be expected, but that the issue is that they would not normally enter the cooling water which is within the sealed reactor circuit and there has been no detectable radiation leak from that sealed circuit.

The Statement also indicated that the independent Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency were kept informed and that with the agreement of the relevant regulator following trials and investigations the reactor was restarted. I take it that means that both the regulator and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency are satisfied that there are no safety issues at stake, but would be obliged if the Minister could confirm that that is the position. I note that the Statement says that we constantly monitor our submarine reactors and that we have never detected a similar occurrence to that now found in the prototype reactor.

The Statement indicates that the low level of radioactivity was detected in January 2012. It would appear that a decision was made not to advise Parliament of this at or near that time. Perhaps the Minister could say why the Government came to that conclusion, since it would have been perfectly easy to make such a Statement to Parliament then. Will the Minister say whether the Scottish Government were advised of the situation either directly or by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency? On the issue of timing, will the Minister also say why it has been decided to tell Parliament about the situation today rather than at any other particular time?

The Statement spelt out the implications for the availability of the Vanguard and Astute class submarines, and thus the maintenance of our continuous at-sea deterrent, the decisions the Government have made to ensure the continuance of our deterrent and the additional costs that will be incurred. Will the Minister indicate whether there will be any implications beyond the submarines in question, and whether there will be any implications for the Astute construction programme?

The Statement indicates that the test reactor is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2015, but that the date may be brought forward. Will the Minister give an assurance that Parliament will be advised if that decision is made? If the test reactor is to be decommissioned shortly, then presumably the same facility will no longer be available to identify early any age or use-related issues that may arise in future operational reactor cores. How, then, will that safeguard be provided in future?

Finally, in the light of the Statement today about the prototype reactor giving advance warning of a possible issue with the operational reactors, do the Government intend to give further consideration to the effectiveness of whatever those intended safeguards may be for future operational reactor cores?

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, I compliment noble Lords on considering two Statements, one after the other. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I pay tribute to the friends and family of the serviceman who sadly died in Afghanistan.

The noble Lord asked me for an assurance that there are no safety issues at stake. To the best of my knowledge we have been given assurances by the bodies that the noble Lord mentioned that there are no safety issues. They are satisfied about that.

The noble Lord asked me why we have made this Statement to Parliament only today. Against the International Atomic Energy Agency’s measurement scale for a nuclear-related event, this issue has been classed at level zero, as the Statement said. As the Statement also said, we have been working with the regulator to keep it informed. As I say, the advice that we received was that there were no safety implications. When this issue was detected, the prototype reactor was shut down to allow us to assess and confirm with the regulator that it could continue to operate safely. It was clear that workers remained safe and the local community was not at risk, and it has since been restarted. No issues have been identified on Vanguard, which continues to operate safely, and there are no imminent safety issues. Safety is always our highest priority. I can assure the noble Lord that if anything significant comes up about this issue, we will keep the House regularly informed.

The noble Lord asked whether we had discussed this issue with the Scottish Government. We informed the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in 2012, given its responsibility for regulating discharge from the site. As I said, this was a level zero issue and there is no requirement to notify such issues. The prototype core in Dounreay comprises a very small area and is not operating as well as it could. This is allowing small quantities of radioactive material to enter another sealed—I stress “sealed”—part of the reactor. This is not a leak from the reactor. Workers remain safe and the local community is not at risk. We made the Scottish Minister for Environment aware of our decision before the Secretary of State gave his Oral Statement to the House earlier today.

The noble Lord asked whether the continuous at-sea deterrent was at risk. The answer is no. The decisions announced today are responsible and precautionary, and will help assure our ability safely to maintain the UK’s nuclear deterrent into the future. “Vanguard” was due to go into refit anyway, so has not yet delayed submarine availability.

The noble Lord asked about the Astute class. At this time there is no impact on the Astute programme. We have thoroughly re-examined the reactors while they are being built. I should point out that this was a microscopic breach in a test reactor that had been hammered, for want of a better word. It does not mean that it will happen in other reactors in submarines. The issue has never occurred previously on a UK naval nuclear reactor, and it has not occurred on one of our other submarines. We are confident that if it did occur we would spot it quickly and be able to take appropriate action. I was unable to jot down the noble Lord’s other question but I will write to him.

Lord Roper (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, from these Benches, I add our condolences to the family of the soldier of 22 Engineer Regiment who died yesterday.

The matter of the Statement is obviously serious and the Government have been absolutely right to act in accord with the precautionary principle. I wonder whether my noble friend can say something about the possible implications for the other two Vanguard-class

submarines. Is there any question of their having to be recalled at some stage and, if so, what would be the further cost? If that were to occur, would there be any other delays in the totality of the programme?

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, to answer my noble friend’s last question first, there will be no delay. This is a decision that we would take in 2018 and depends on the research that we are able to carry out into the prototype reactor core. I thank my noble friend for his support for the Statement.

Lord Boyce (Crossbench)
My Lords, I believe that this proposed refuelling is an entirely sensible course of action to ensure that HMS “Vanguard” can meet her final decommissioning date in the late 2020s. However, I should like to press the Minister and to follow up and expand on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. Can the Minister absolutely assure us that the refit length will not be extended as the result of this refuelling and thereby potentially compromise the operating cycle that allows us to maintain continuous at-sea deterrence? Can he say whether the successor submarine—I emphasise the fact that there is a successor to the Vanguard-class submarine—will not be affected by this particular reactor issue?

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, as a former commanding officer of HMS “Superb” speaks with more authority than anyone in this House on nuclear-powered submarines. I listened very carefully to what he said and thank him for his support on this issue. The Government are committed to CASD and I can confirm that the decision to refuel HMS “Vanguard” will not affect our posture and can be contained within the refit timescales. It is a precautionary measure timed to coincide with the planned refit period precisely to avoid any impact on CASD. Neither will it affect the successor programme.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (Crossbench)
My Lords, I add my condolences on the events in Helmand province. It is a very sad announcement but we have grown used to it in the past and such events are rare at the present moment.

I very much support the Government in the precautions that they have taken here. They are absolutely right to err on the side of caution, however inconvenient or costly that might be. The safety of submariners and the staff at Dounreay, Devonport and Faslane must be of paramount importance. The House will also be reassured that this announcement will not affect the four submarine continuous at-sea deterrent patrols. Does he not agree that the events of recent days show clearly why nuclear deterrence is still crucial in the world today? Perhaps I may follow up one of the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked. Can the Minister confirm that, without the test reactor at HMS “Vulcan” in Dounreay, the new reactors will involve sufficient assurance to allay any public or indeed private concerns that might exist?

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, I missed the noble Lord’s last word. What was the word that he used after “sufficient”?

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (Crossbench)
I asked whether the new reactors would involve sufficient assurance to allay any public or private concerns that might now exist.

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord for his support. As he said, this is a precautionary measure. Although this is not a safety issue, obviously the safety of the civilian workers and of our crews is very much in our minds. The noble Lord mentioned the events of the past few days. There is no current nuclear threat to the UK, but we can never discount the possibility that one could re-emerge in the future. I can vigorously give the noble Lord the assurance that he asked for.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, since the naval reactor test establishment has been described as being very safe and a low-risk site, and since low levels of radioactivity were detected in the cooling water surrounding the prototype core, and that was done, as I understand it, at the Dounreay site, why is it being decommissioned? There does not appear to be provision for reinstating similar testing facilities at Devonport or at the reactor plant at Raynesway in Derby, which were comparable to those that were successful in detecting this fault at Dounreay. This will have an impact on the local economy. The decommissioning will be expensive in that it has to be reconstructed elsewhere, whereas there is a team of highly skilled operators at the existing site. In the light of the non-disclosure or unawareness of what caused this fault, I do not fully understand from the Statement why such a step is being taken.

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, my noble friend asked me why it is being decommissioned and what is going to happen afterwards. I assure him that this has been very carefully thought out. I asked this question earlier of the people who briefed me. The answer is very technical and sensitive, and it may be better if I write to my noble friend. The short answer is that there has been so much technical progress that people can learn in much quicker and better ways than in the way things were done at Dounreay, but I am happy to write to my noble friend because it is a very important question.

Lord West of Spithead (Labour)
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Since 1968, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we have had a ballistic missile submarine deployed in the vast expanse of the north Atlantic carrying the nation’s deterrent—our ultimate and final insurance policy. Of course, SSBNs are amazingly complex bits of kit. Successive Governments and the Royal Navy have managed to ensure that they have operated safely and that they have had continual operational readiness. This announcement continues that tradition. Clearly there is no risk to anyone at all. That is quite clear from the announcement. It is quite clear from what has been spotted that there is no risk at all, so safety is fine and is paramount. Yet the Government have ensured that looking to the future they will maintain continuous at-sea deterrents. I congratulate them on making that decision, which no doubt was quite a difficult decision to make.

As always, there will of course be people, some of whom will be in Scotland and perhaps involved with Alex Salmond and his people, who will start muttering, “Gosh, nuclear is so unsafe. Isn’t this awful?”, even though there is no risk. All I would say to them is, “Let us take the past 50 years of operating nuclear submarines in the Royal Navy and compare the number of accidents and deaths in the oil and gas industry with the number of deaths involved with Royal Navy nuclear submarines”. I know that the answer for Royal Navy nuclear submarines is zero. I do not think that the other side could make that claim. It is important always to remember that, because a lot of nonsense is talked about this issue. Again, in this decision we are very safe.

Does the noble Lord agree that what has happened is a stark example of why we need four boats to maintain continuous at-sea deterrents, because of unforeseen and unexpected things? Does he also agree that it is a very good reason why there should be no further delay whatever in terms of introducing the next, replacement deterrent submarines?

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, that is a lot to absorb but I agree very much with what the noble Lord said. As a former First Sea Lord, he was well aware of the success of CASD. He said that these are very sophisticated bits of kit. I understand that nuclear-powered submarines are the most sophisticated kit that humans have ever made. I assure him that safety is always uppermost in our minds even if it is expensive. He also mentioned the Scottish issue. Since 1963, the Ministry of Defence has operated more than 80 nuclear reactor cores without accident. As he said, nuclear-powered submarines remain the best way to deliver our nuclear deterrent. We should not allow a vested interest to derail the defence of our nation by manipulating today’s decision. The nuclear deterrent remains the ultimate guarantor of our nation’s security.

The noble Lord, Lord West, also asked about four boats. That decision will be made in 2016. I assure him that there is no delay in the programme.

Lord Trefgarne (Conservative)
My Lords, I add my sadness to that expressed by other noble Lords as to the death of the British soldier in Afghanistan. I should like to ask the Minister about the design authority with regard to the nuclear reactor in all our submarines. Who holds that design authority? Presumably, that company was also responsible for the manufacture of the prototype. Will it be continuously involved in the work that my noble friend has described?

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My noble friend has asked a very good question. Rolls-Royce is the MoD’s technical authority for the design of reactors and the manufacture of the cores. It has delivered reactor cores for UK submarines for more than 50 years. We are confident that it will deliver the cores we require in the future. There is no effect on jobs at the Rolls-Royce facility in Derby.

Lord Reid of Cardowan (Labour)
The operational questions arising have largely have been covered by my noble friend Lord West and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce. In more immediate terms, the concern obviously will be the safety of personnel at Dounreay and on the submarines. Although it has been deemed that there is no risk and that the reactor, with all its accoutrements, has been restarted, will he confirm, first, that there will be continuous monitoring of a specific nature at Dounreay? Secondly, even though there is no risk discerned in the test reactor at Dounreay, will he confirm that there is even less risk on the submarines themselves; and that there has been no evidence that the same phenomena have occurred on any submarines, and that that will be monitored? Thirdly, will he confirm that the refuelling will take place at Devonport rather than anywhere else?

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, it will take place at Devonport in Plymouth, yes. There is no risk, I can assure the noble Lord, to the workers or the local community up at Dounreay. The naval reactor test establishment remains a very safe and low-risk site. Workers remain safe and the local community and environment is not at risk. There has been a very small increase in the radioactivity of the coolant in the sealed reactor circuit. This has not gone outside the sealed unit and it has certainly not gone into the atmosphere. This refuelling is a prudent, pre-emptive and purely precautionary measure and it has been carried out to manage risk to the operational submarine programme and not to mitigate any safety issue.

As far as any risk to the submarine crews is concerned, the safety of our nuclear submarines is not in doubt and we have not identified any issues with our operational submarines. The refuelling of HMS “Vanguard” will begin in late 2015 as a precautionary measure during her scheduled deep maintenance period. If a leak occurred on a submarine, it would be detected immediately.

Lord Davies of Stamford (Labour)
My Lords, I endorse the words of my noble friend Lord West about the importance of having four SSBMs rather than three, which has been brought out by this incident. Had we only three boats, as people more out of ignorance of the situation than anything else have sometimes urged upon Governments of both parties, and were we then faced—which we have not been on this occasion, mercifully although we might have been—with a need for an emergency refuelling, continuous at-sea deterrent would almost certainly have been threatened.

I would have had the ministerial responsibility for this matter had it arisen in my time in office and, on the basis of the facts set out in the Statement this afternoon—the House will be grateful for the fullness of the explanations given by the noble Lord—I think that the Government have done absolutely the right thing. However, I am mystified by why the decision has been taken now rather than two years ago. Surely, once it was clear that the prototype had this important fault, it should have been clear at that point that when the first opportunity arose to do a deep refit of the oldest submarine HMS “Vanguard” it would have been sensible to have taken the opportunity to refuel. That has been done now. But surely that could have been seen to be the right solution two years ago, or 18 months ago when matters had been thoroughly worked through in terms of the conclusions from the leak that has been established in the prototype. Why the delay? That is the one thing that mystifies me about this whole incident.

Lord Astor of Hever (Conservative)
My Lords, taking the first part of the noble Lord’s question, nuclear deterrent remains the ultimate guarantor of our nation’s security. The Government’s policy is clear: we will maintain a

continuous at-sea deterrent and proceed with plans to build a new fleet of submarines. Final decisions on successive submarines and the numbers, which the noble Lord mentioned, will be taken in 2016.

The noble Lord asked why there was a delay. I set out an answer in some detail to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser.

House adjourned at 6.18 pm.