March 5, 2013

Ministry of Defence objected to wind farm plan over drone test safety fears

Martin Shipton, WalesOnline | Mar 5 2013 |

Serious public safety concerns have been raised after the Ministry of Defence confirmed it had objected to a huge wind farm proposal because of fears it could interfere with radar in a part of Wales where pilotless “drones” are tested.

Drones have been used to kill terrorists and others in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The MoD’s objection to the Brechfa Forest West wind farm proposal in Carmarthenshire, which was subsequently withdrawn after concerns about a possible legal challenge, only came to light after a local farmer made a Freedom of Information Act request.

On Wednesday, a House of Commons debate will take place about the wind farm application by the energy giant RWE.

It would entail the erection of 28 turbines, each of which would be 145 metres tall.

Because the wind farm would be greater than 50MW in size, the decision on whether the scheme should go ahead will be taken by the UK Government.

Greg Barker, minister of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, is due to announce a decision by March 12.

Claire Dugdale, who with her husband Bryan owns a farm near Pencader beneath an airspace “danger zone” for drones launched from what was RAF Aberporth, has been sent a file of documents that reveal the concerns of the MoD about the proposed wind farm.

The documents also show how the MoD, after deciding not to proceed with its objection, strongly advised the Met Office to withdraw its formal objection to the scheme too.

The Met Office had expressed the view that the wind farm could interfere with its weather forecasting.

Material disclosed to Ms Dugdale shows that on October 7 2011, the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) wrote to the MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) outlining reasons why the wind farm was unacceptable.

The MAA pointed out that four new “danger zones” had been created between the Aberporth Range and Sennybridge Training Area: “These new zones were put in place to allow for unmanned and remotely piloted aircraft to fly out of West Wales airport, to and from Aberporth and between Aberporth and Sennybridge”, said the MAA.

“With the activation of all four new zones, safety criteria will apply in the area around them that will prevent or constrain the construction of new wind farms.

“Wind farms already operating in these zones, the air traffic provider will need to provide evidence as to how they will mitigate the effects, eg limiting the areas in which they are prepared to let unmanned and remotely controlled aircraft to operate.

“Each further wind farm will potentially degrade the availability of Danger Area air space.”

The MAA said the blades of the 28 turbines of the Brechfa Forest West proposal “have been predicted to be visible to the Aberporth radar, and could have an adverse effect on returns to the radar, that has the potential to degrade the radar service given by Aberporth Range control, jeopardising aviation safety in the area”.

The MAA letter went on: “It … is ‘imperative’ that radar returns received by Aberporth are in no way affected by anything which might materially affect the controllers’ ability to warn commanders of air vehicles to enable them to discharge their responsibilities under Rule 8 (Avoiding Aerial Collisions) contained within the Air Navigation Order.

“There are concerns in relation to Brechfa Forest West, as if built it would be in close proximity to the edge of the four Danger Area boundaries, and also would be in the buffer zone around the four Danger Area zones.

“The buffer zones referred to are designed to give time for unauthorised/ unknown aircraft to be detected, and action to be taken by Aberporth Range controllers to manage a potentially dangerous situation.”

On November 7 2011 an internal MoD email confirmed that the Danger Area was to be used for the “Watchkeeper” Unmanned Aerial Vehicle project, a “key project needed to support military uses now and in the future”.

Later, however, the MoD decided to withdraw its objections.

A document dated November 30 2011 quoted an unnamed official saying: “Despite all of the statements from those deemed subject matter experts, I am not clear that we could sustain a robust objection.”

Further material released to Mrs Dugdale shows how MoD officials influenced the Met Office to withdraw its objections to the wind farm.

It had been considered that the turbines could interfere with radar, impacting on the ability to predict unusual weather events like flooding.

But in a heavily redacted report sent to the Met Office last June, the MoD said: “To progress any wind farm objection … we need hard evidence – otherwise the MoD argument is not robust and the risk of losing (eg at planning application stage/ at appeal/ at public inquiry) increases greatly.

“This can have reputational and financial consequences not to mention setting precedents.”

Mrs Dugdale said: “I was astonished to discover that the MoD had objected.

“What has been disclosed is very worrying, and I believe the decision on the wind farm should be put off so that this material can be considered as part of the planning process.”

Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards, who represents Mrs Dugdale and who secured tomorrow’s House of Commons debate, said: “Public safety must always take precedence and there should be no question of this proposal going ahead before these concerns have been fully examined.”

An MoD spokesman said last night: “In June 2011, the MOD was consulted on the Brechfa Forest West proposal by the developer RWE NPower Renewables Ltd.

“The wind farm falls within the 20km consultation zone around the Crug-Y-Gorllwyn Meteorological weather radar.

“However, due to an administrative error, this proposal was not passed to the Met Office for their assessment.

“Once aware of the error, the case was reviewed by MoD and the Met Office, and an assessment made based on a number of factors.

“Brechfa Forest West is located in an area of already degraded data and the Met Office and MOD concluded that, in this instance, the additional degradation that would be caused by Brechfa Forest West would not be sufficient to justify an objection.”

URL to article: