The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been attacked for planning to increase discharges of radioactive waste into the Firth of Clyde by up to 50 times.
An application by the MoD to overhaul waste disposal from the Faslane and Coulport nuclear bases near Helensburgh suggests that radioactive discharges could rise sharply as more submarines are stationed there.
The liquid waste comes from the reactors that drive the Royal Navy’s submarines and from the processing of Trident nuclear warheads. It will be discharged from Faslane into the Gareloch nearby via a proposed new pipeline.
Increased pollution has been condemned by local authorities as “reckless and unacceptable” because it could contaminate wildlife and local communities with radioactivity. The MoD’s plan has also been criticised as “unwelcome” by a former environmental regulator.
According to the MoD, however, the proposed discharges were within permissible limits, and it was proposing to reduce those limits. “Nuclear safety is our top priority,” it said.
Faslane is currently the home port for four nuclear-powered Vanguard submarines armed with Trident missiles. It also hosts an ageing nuclear-powered Trafalgar submarine and three new nuclear-powered Astute submarines.
There are four more Astute submarines due to come to the Clyde – though they have been delayed – as well as another old Trafalgar submarine. In the 2030s the UK government also wants to station a fleet of new Dreadnought submarines armed with upgraded Trident missiles there.
In May 2019 the Clyde bases naval commander, Donald Doull, applied to the Scottish Government’s regulator, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), for renewed “approval to dispose of radioactive waste”. Ageing waste management facilities were being replaced with a new “Nuclear Support Hub” at Faslane, he said.
Solid and liquid waste from neighbouring Coulport, where Trident warheads are stored and processed, would be transported to the Faslane hub for treatment, along with wastes from submarine reactors. The resulting liquid radioactive wastes would be discharged “at a point approximately one kilometre north of the current discharge point” in the Gareloch, Doull stated.
He pointed out that proposed annual limits for discharges were being reduced “where practical”. Predicted radiation doses for the most exposed people were “significantly below” the recommended safety limit and there would be “no radiological hazard for any member of the public”, he said.
What Doull didn’t say, however, was that the amounts of radioactivity scheduled to be dumped into the Gareloch are due to rise – in some cases dramatically.
A table on page 34 of the Clyde bases’ detailed 76-page application listed the radioactive wastes expected to be discharged every year from the new Faslane hub. “Activity levels in treated liquid effluent discharged to the Gareloch have been estimated based on the maximum anticipated radionuclide levels,” the application said.
Future annual discharges of cobalt-60 – one of the main radioactive wastes from submarine reactors – were given as 23.4 million units of radioactivity, known as becquerels. This is 52 times higher than the average annual discharges of cobalt-60 over the last six years – 0.45 million becquerels.