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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