Her Majesty’s Tireless Threatens Mediterranean


LaForge and Bonnie Urfer

The
near reactor meltdown aboard Britain’s submarine HMS Tireless, its
spill of radioactive cooling water into the Mediterranean, and a risky,
experimental, and possibly illegal repair operation in a densely populated
area, have brought thousands of outraged Gibraltar and Spanish residents into
the streets. Since May 19, the 280-foot Tireless with its failed reactor has
been docked near the center of Gibraltar, population 29,165.

According to
the British Ministry of Defense (MOD), the Tireless’s reactor failed
May 12 while patrolling between Sicily and North Africa. One or more welds in
the submarine’s primary cooling system cracked and began leaking hot,
pressurized, and radioactively contaminated water into the sea. Authorities
initially claimed there was no danger of a radiation spill, but later admitted
the leakage. Neither the Navy nor the MOD has said how much of the deadly
wastewater was spewed.

Two major
papers, the Sunday Times and the Guardian, have reported the Tireless
came within “a few minutes” of a reactor meltdown when the high-pressure
coolant began rushing out of the system. One Navy spokesperson said, “Once
the fault had ripped through, it could not be isolated from the rest of the
system.” The Navy asserts that the reactor was properly shut down, but while
the Tireless was towed into the Bay of Algeciras the leak continued
until, “Shortly after arriving [May 19] in Gibraltar the leak was
temporarily sealed” (according to a November 23 report by the
hastily-assembled government Nuclear Safety Advisory Panel).

Captain Dis
Carneay quickly announced that the Tireless would return to Britain for
repairs. But on June 26 the MOD announced that repairs would take place at
Gibraltar. No explanation was given for the change, except to say (in
November) that moving the sub “would introduce new, higher risks to the
submarine, its crew and, possibly, to coastal communities.” The decision to
repair Tireless in Gibraltar violates Royal Navy procedure. The “Z” berths
at Gibraltar are only for “recreational” stops. “These berths are not
cleared for the maintenance or repair of the nuclear plant,” according to
Navy regulations. Gibraltar’s berths have no permanent health physics
department, no radiation monitoring organization, and no disaster evacuation
plans, all of which are required for the “X” berths built in Britain
specifically for “refit, repair or maintenance of nuclear-powered
warships.”

Almost eight
months later the Tireless’s worn out, leaking reactor still rests
1,800 meters from the desalination plant for Gibraltar’s water supply. The
Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has protested that the geography of
Gibraltar makes evacuation in the event of a radiation disaster difficult: the
only land exit to the north could easily be within the contaminated area.

Risky,
Experimental Repair

The
Tireless uses a U.S.-designed pressurized water reactor built by Rolls
Royce. In the reactor, primary cooling water flows directly over the extremely
hot reactor fuel and then is pumped to a generator where it heats secondary
water to create steam. Because the primary coolant circulates inside the
reactor, it makes direct contact with intensely hot uranium fuel cladding,
becoming radioactive.

When fuel
cladding is damaged, cooling water is further contaminated with extremely
deadly fission products, including plutonium-241, iodine-129, cesium-137,
strontium-90, cobalt-60, and nickel-59 among others. If the Tireless’s
fuel cladding were damaged, some of these long-lived poisons would have poured
into the sea for over a week. (Iodine-129 is dangerous for 150 million years;
nickel-59 for 75,000.) Based on assurances by the MOD, the Advisory Panel
claims that the cladding remains intact.

It took until
the end of June for the Tireless’s reactor to cool down enough for
inspection. The “two-mm wide crack” in a weld is said to be near the
reactor vessel; the length of the crack was not divulged. The Navy has decided
to completely remove a section of the heavy pipe and send it to England for
study.

Still, the
machinists didn’t start the cutting and removal of the cracked ducting until
November 24. If the job was undertaken as announced, the three-day operation
involved extremely dangerous and novel experiments:

  • (1) Primary coolant was
    to be drained from the system for up to three weeks, leaving the reactor
    fuel at risk of overheating. The deliberately increased risk of a reactor
    meltdown was found by the Advisory Panel “to be acceptably low.” The
    Navy even convinced the panel that the fuel system is able to survive a
    complete loss of coolant.
  • (2) Some 6,340 gallons of
    this primary cooling water was to be transferred to shore. And because
    Gibraltar’s Z berth is not equipped with rad waste storage facilities, a
    containment system was cobbled together ad hoc. The system will become
    contaminated waste. The radioactive wastewater has already been on
    Gibraltar longer than the MOD’s risk assessment suggested.
  • (3) The section of failed
    welds was to be removed with a rig designed, built and tested for the
    first time. To replace the cracked pipe, the Navy intends to employ a
    welding method never used on nuclear reactors, a system that even the
    Advisory Panel found worrisome. “The Panel recognizes that having a
    direct path from the reactor to the outside environment places total
    reliance on the continued integrity of the fuel cladding to contain the
    fission products.” In a December 28 report, the Gibraltar newspaper Iberia
    News
    reports that replacement of the damaged section is set to begin
    January 4, 2001.
  • (4) Finally, pressure
    testing of the primary loop, and restart of the reactor involve additional
    risks of leaks and fuel overheating.

In late
October, the British Navy recalled all of the Tireless’s sister ships
for reactor inspections. Defense Minister John Spellar admitted in the House
of Commons that the reactor flaws on the Tireless might be “generic.” A
partial review of 12 Trafalgar and Swiftsure Class subs found 6 at risk of the
same cooling system cracking. Five subs were cleared of the flaw, including HMS
Triumph
. Triumph, however, was on patrol and couldn’t have undergone a
thorough safety check since that requires a reactor shutdown.

Twelve thousand
people marched November 25 from La Linea, Spain (population 59,879), toward
the submarine berth—only three kilometers away. The demonstrators demanded
the removal and repair elsewhere of the crippled reactor. Some 1,500 marchers
and boaters protested August 15 near the Tireless’s mooring, which is
less than one mile from Gibraltar’s major tourist attractions. On September
15, as most of the world’s attention was focused on the sunken Russian sub
Kursk, thousands filled the Plaza de la Constitucion in La Linea to declare
the “Platform Against the Nuclear Submarine.” Thousands protested July 13,
declaring “Gibraltar isn’t Europe’s junkyard.” Seven kilometers across
the bay in the city of Algeciras—population 102,058—mayor Patricio
Gonzalez has collected petitions intended for the courts in Gibraltar
condemning the MOD’s repair scheme and demanding an explanation of why the
sub can’t be towed back to Britain.

The protesters
have howled at the government’s emergency “preparedness” plan to
dispense potassium iodate tablets after a radiation disaster.  Z

John
LaForge and Bonnie Urfer are Nukewatch Staff