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Accidents will happen

Graham Smith | 15:49 UK time, Thursday, 24 May 2012

The trouble with stories based on reams of data is that they are like looking for a needle in a haystack, with no clear idea of what the needle looks like or the shape of the haystack.


So when the Ministry of Defence press office helpfully drew my attention to the Site Event Report Committee's annual publication scheme, my heart leapt - and then sank just as quickly.

These documents detail hundreds of nuclear incidents and accidents at Devonport dockyard over the years - some years running at the rate of one a week. My heart leaps - what a story! But then my heart sinks. What's the context?

Is the detail contained in the annexes to these reports good news or bad? It's obviously good that the MoD choses to tell us about it. And in an environment which must involve several hundred opportunities for something to go wrong every day, it's probably good that, on average, only one thing goes wrong per week. And it's a matter for considerable relief that the vast majority of mishaps are relatively trivial.

But the quest for context poses yet more questions. How much of this is old news? For example, on 8th November 2008 this happened:

"Whilst conducting a primary plant discharge, the hose between the submarine and the PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) on the jetty split discharging liquid from the submarine to the environment. One member of Ship's Company came into contact with the spray from the hose."
This sounds serious, and it was. A "Category B" accident, forcing managers and MoD civil servants to do the unthinkable - tell the minister. Yet I've been doing stories about Devonport for 30 years and I don't remember that one, nor can I find any mention of it in any local media archives, so maybe the minister kept it to himself, at least for a while.

And the SERC documents don't appear to mention some other accidents which we know happened, such as the 30th April 1992 "large fire" on board HMS Turbulent. I definitely remember that one because I was in a local television newsroom which just happened to have a camera crew in the dockyard when it happened. Subsequently an old fashioned Parliamentary Question solicited the somewhat disconcerting information that, on average, there's a fire on a nuclear submarine about once a month.

So what does this leave us with? Stacks of data detailing hundreds of mostly trivial "incidents" which the rules say must be reported. Look hard enough and we find a handful of serious mishaps capable of causing real concern. I quite like data-driven stories. But I prefer original eye-witness testimonies. If you have any, drop me a line.

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