Homer Simpson 'nuclear waste spill' panic at nuke sub base!
Almost as bad as dropping a luminous watch in the sea!
National news outlets, citing "secret" Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents, are reporting that "serious safety breaches" and "leaks of liquid radioactive waste" have occurred at the Faslane nuclear submarine base. It's sort of true, but one would release many times more radioactive material into the Clyde by dropping a luminous watch into it.
The story comes to us courtesy of anti-nuclear campaigner-slash-journalist Rob Edwards, writing in the Guardian and also providing expert commentary (audio) on his own research. Channel 4 sexes things up even more (vid), referring on TV to a "secret" report that "we've obtained", plus leaks of "radioactive liquid", "untreated waste" and "secrets kept" from the local community.
In fact none of the documents involved are classified even to the routine "Restricted" level applied to almost all internal MoD paperwork - two levels below Secret. The very few that even have an MoD header on them are marked "Unclas" - Unclassified. They were all obtained by a standard Freedom of Information Act request submitted, not to the MoD, but to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) - the whole lot can be downloaded from SEPA as indistinct image pdfs here.
The three "leaks of liquid radioactive waste" refer, not to some kind of green glowing ooze of the sort routinely released at work by Homer Simpson, but to water: possibly containing varying but low levels of tritium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen. Submarines at Faslane routinely need to offload water with tritium in it, or water which hasn't been subject to any radiation itself but which has run through the same pipework and so may have picked up some tritium.
The procedure for dealing with this water is that it is pumped out of the sub at the quay and then moved to a tank a few hundred metres along the shore. From that tank, it is dumped into the Gareloch, the deep sea inlet on which Faslane is situated. Before release into the loch it is filtered, but this treatment doesn't affect or remove the tritium - it's to remove mundane contaminants such as oil.
After filtering, the water is dumped straight into the loch with tritium still in it. As far as radioactive contamination goes, you might as well just pump it straight out of the submarine into the surrounding water.
This procedure is fully approved by SEPA, reasonably enough because the amounts of radioactivity involved are tiny. One can legally buy or sell a luminous-dial wristwatch containing 10 GigaBecquerels (GBq) of tritium in the UK: the MoD only needs to dump an average of 8 GBq of tritium a month at Faslane. Even SEPA says a TeraBecquerel (100 watches' worth) of tritium going in the loch per annum is fine, more than ten times what the MoD actually does.
Realistically you could release many times the annual SEPA Faslane tritium limit every day and the Gareloch would remain radiologically* safe for humans to drink - the Gareloch holds on the order of half a trillion litres of water, and the tides flow in and out twice a day. Water is judged safe to drink by the European Union up to a hundred Becquerels of tritium per litre.
So what happened with Rob Edwards' "three leaks of liquid radioactive waste", then?
All "Secret Document" incidents = Roughly 1 or 2 per cent of a single luminous wristwatch dial falling in the sea
Incident 1 - August 2007
HMS Superb discharges some ordinary demineralised water into the loch through a pipe which had previously had water with tritium in it.
Subsequent investigation determines that as much as 24 MegaBecquerels of tritium could have been released directly to the loch, rather than being released later from the shore pipe as normal. This equates to a quarter of one percent of the amount that could be released by dropping a luminous watch in the loch. Hundreds of times this amount of tritium is put into the loch every month on average, with full SEPA approval.
Incident 2 - February 2008
HMS Torbay pumps out ordinary demineralised water into a tank barge which already has some water containing tritium in it. Because of a fault with the barge level gauges, the barge briefly spills water into the loch through overflow pipes as its tanks fill up. The pumps are turned off straight away after the overflow begins.
Subsequent investigation determines that the "amount of water spilled was in the order of litres, not tens of litres" and that the maximum possible tritium spill was less than 100 MegaBecquerels (less than one hundredth of the amount one would release by dropping a cheap luminous watch in the loch). Dozens of such incidents would have to occur every single day for a year before Faslane breached its SEPA tritium limit. All the water would have subsequently been put into the loch anyway a couple of hundred metres away complete with tritium, with full SEPA approval.
Incident 3 - 2004
Another incident of this sort occurring with HMS Trafalgar is alluded to in the released SEPA material, but not described in detail.
There was also potential for sub-microscopic amounts of Cobalt-60 to be released in these incidents: this isotope gets generated in submarine pipework and can sometimes be detected in the tritium-y water that comes out of them. In every case described here, however, cobalt levels were either undetectably low or negligible compared to those of tritium - itself only present, as we have seen, in insignificantly small amounts.
So to sum up. These "liquid radioactive waste leaks" were utterly, mindbogglingly unimportant. You could go out and buy a cheap, fully legal luminous watch, throw it into the Gareloch, and you would have released many, many times more radioactive contaminants than the Navy did here. You can wear that watch, and if it's a cheaply-made one (eg an older Swatch) the tritium will leak out as though you had a small submarine base, operating just one or two subs, strapped to your wrist. Tritium will (aaiee!) get absorbed into your body, emerging in due course at detectable levels in your urine. But you'll be fine.
And yet each of these naval "incidents", less significant than a wristwatch accident, is treated as a big deal by the authorities. Reams of paperwork is generated, both in the Navy and at SEPA. Handling of water with tritium in it - which everyone concerned admits is low-level waste, far less concentrated and dangerous than luminous paint - is upgraded to the highest level of nuclear procedure at Faslane as a result, generating mountains more paperwork, records, improvements and modifications to the base, new barges etc. SEPA issues fatuous statements that - if Faslane were under its jurisdiction, which it is not - the base might be subject to "regulatory action", or even shut down.
That, quite frankly, is insane - but that's the freakish world of nuclear safety for you. This is the reason why nuclear power didn't turn out to be too cheap to meter: because everything nuclear or even just radioactive has been regulated almost to the point of impossibility, as a result of hysterical, terrified ignorance on the part of politicians and the general public.
The media didn't just twist the story: The media is the story
Where did that hysterical fear reflex come from? Largely from the national and local media, which falls into the same trap with nukes as it does with the dangers attendant on terrorism, cannabis, bird (and quite possibly swine) flu etc. As with the terrorism, when it comes to nuke danger the media are being manipulated - or as in this case, being manipulative.
It's certainly no surprise to find that this "story" has the fingerprints of Rob Edwards all over it. (He is named in the "secret" emails released by SEPA.) As well as having worked for the Guardian, Channel 4, New Scientist and various Scottish media, Edwards is a former leading light of the CND and the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace. He has written a book describing a little girl's harrowing death from leukaemia in lavish detail, and laying the blame squarely on the nuclear industry - a tactic straight out of Fear 101.
At least once every year, as he has done here, Edwards goes out and gets hold of some astonishingly boring, hundreds of pages long, publicly-available documents to do with nuclear safety. Then he trawls through them until he has found something on which to hang a scaremongering headline - safe in the knowledge that very few other journos will bother to check what he says. The Edwards nuke-fear sausage machine is remorseless.
Last year we had "Nuclear missiles could blow up like popcorn". Before that it was "UK nuclear accidents blamed on poor safety", "Road crash could set off nuclear blast" etc. etc. way back into time.
Edwards proudly quotes another CND activist, James Cameron, on his website:
I do not see how a reporter attempting to define a situation involving some sort of ethical conflict can do it with sufficient demonstrable neutrality to fulfil some arbitrary concept of 'objectivity' ...
As I see it, the journalist is obliged to present his attitude as vigorously and persuasively as he can, insisting that it is his attitude, to be examined and criticised in the light of every contrary argument, which he need not accept but must reveal.
Edwards doesn't live up to Cameron's standard: he doesn't reveal his attitude or reveal contrary arguments. He's honest enough about what he is and what he does on his website, but not when he's working inside the mainstream media, fabricating non-existent secret coverup "stories" from ordinary regulatory correspondence referring to insignificant incidents - or, often enough in the past, no actual incident at all.
It's surely true, as Edwards and his nuke-fearing friends contend, that many lies have been told by the governments of the world and their nuclear industries over the decades.
But the lies and distortion by the anti-nuclear lobby have been at least as bad. Rob Edwards on his own, if he carries on at his present rate, seems set to rival anything a government weapons programme might achieve in terms of misinforming the public. It's pretty safe to disregard any nuke-danger story you see with his byline on it. ®
*Obviously you can't really drink it because it's salt water.
Full disclosure: Lewis Page is a former navy diver who served several years at Faslane. On one occasion he did lose a tritium-dial service watch while diving in the Gareloch: he is thus personally responsible for more radioactive contamination in the loch than several entire submarine crews. He's in favour of the UK keeping a credible second-strike, retaliatory nuclear deterrent as cheaply as possible, eg Trident.
As for fission power, he can take it or leave it; but as far as he can work out, the numbers on a fully renewables-powered Blighty with population and living standard above medieval levels don't add up, and this whole fossil fuel situation is going to need sorting out sooner or later.