The Ministry of Defence will lose powers for environmental regulation on radioactivity in Scotland, under Scottish government plans. Scottish ministers said the arrangement had been “abused”, after a problem at a Highland nuclear test facility dating back to 2012 emerged last week.
The UK government said there were no safety concerns following the incident at Dounreay's Vulcan reactor. The Scottish government said the public had been misled. Scottish ministers said all Scotland's environmental regulation should in future be run from Scotland.
The row came after UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons last week that “low levels of radioactivity were detected” in the cooling waters of a reactor at the Naval Reactor Test Establishment in 2012.
As a result HMS Vanguard, the UK's oldest nuclear-armed submarine, is to have its reactor refuelled at a cost of £120m.
'Culture of secrecy'
Mr Hammond's department informed the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) later in 2012. The agency said it was told on a “need-to-know” basis and as there was no safety risk decided not to share details with the Scottish government.
Sepa said it was obliged “under a Memorandum of Understanding” not to disclose details of operational issues at the Vulcan reactor. Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead told the Scottish Parliament: “The MoD has again demonstrated a deep-seated culture of secrecy and have also misled local community representatives – telling them everything was fine and routine when it clearly was not.”
He said he was drawing up plans to end a “Crown exemption” which currently meant that regulating the environment in regard to radioactivity within the areas of MoD establishments in Scotland was not subject to Sepa regulation.
“Sepa can regulate and enforce action on radioactivity across the whole of the nation except for the areas covered by MoD establishments,” Mr Lochhead told MSPs.
“That is a flawed and historic anomaly which has been of concern for some time, however the latest incident and the culture of secrecy surrounding it are the final straw and the lack of transparency in this case is an abuse of the crown exemption.”
“By removing the crown exemption, Sepa will be able to regulate all of Scotland and in this situation they would have had the power to demand that action was taken rather than the MoD being able to withhold vital information.”
Meanwhile, in a letter to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, Mr Hammond said the incident in question was classified as a “Level 0” incident, with “no safety significance.”
He added that the MoD had no authority to stop Sepa informing Scottish ministers, adding: “Sepa took the decision, correctly in my view given the absence of any safety concern, that there was no issue that merited disclosure to Scottish ministers.
“If there had been any safety issue for employees at Dounreay, the surrounding community or the environment, we would, of course, have informed the Scottish government,” the letter said.
Mr Hammond also said the MoD was speaking to the local community to answer any questions they might have.
A spokesman for Sepa said: “Sepa is obliged under the Memorandum of Understanding not to disclose the details surrounding operational issues at VNR which were shared with Sepa on a strictly need-to-know basis for security reasons.
“Sepa would make a report to the Scottish government in the event of a breach of thresholds or if a need arose to alter discharge limits. As neither of these things occurred, there was nothing for Sepa to report to the Scottish government.”