Roz Paterson looks at new report on the dangers of nuclear weapons convoys • In 2011, a goods lorry suffered a blow-out at the busy Reith interchange, near Bellshill, Glasgow, causing it to crash through the central reservation and punch a hole in the side of an oncoming vehicle.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t just another goods lorry, but a Truck Cargo Heavy Duty (TCHD), a military heavyweight, carrying nuclear warheads from Burghhead in Berkshire to Coulport, on Loch Long. Leaking fuel from the damaged TCHD ignited, and radioactive materials from the damaged warheads started to spread.
The emergency services, who had had no warning that such a dangerous convoy was passing through—the TCHD was accompanied by another 18 vehicles, including escorts and a second TCHD—and were grossly unprepared. The ambulance staff who attended the scene were not even aware of the danger to their own personnel, or that taking contaminated patients to a regular hospital would endanger the patients already there.
Although the MoD summoned a weapons expert to attend and advise, he would not arrive for another five and a half hours, as he was in the south of England at the time of the incident.
Two people died at the scene, seven were seriously injured, and approximately 1000 were affected by a “deadly cloud of radioactive dust”.
The people who lived in the immediate vicinity—when we talk about this in terms of a nuclear accident, we mean everything and everyone within a radius of ten kilometres—were told simply to run. For their lives. Parents were instructed to abandon their children in schools.
But the nightmare didn’t end there; the deadly cloud was now drifting towards Glasgow, the most densely populated conurbation in Scotland.
OK, OK, this didn’t happen. Relax. A bit.
The above was an exercise, codenamed Senator 2011, conducted by the MoD five years ago, to assess its ability to respond to an accident involving a nuclear convoy. The results were not good. The MoD does one every year, and every year the results are not good; no one knows what to do, nothing is in place to protect anyone, and the risks are left to the imagination.
If you didn’t realise that nuclear convoys, bristling with weapons and uranium, went hurtling up and down our main roads up to six times a year, from the munitions factory in Berkshire to their designated home in Coulport and Faslane, you’re not alone. A YouGov poll found that almost as many people who voted against Brexit live in total ignorance of this risky business.
This ferrying back and forth is essential, apparently, to keep our Mutually Assured Destruction capability in tip-top order. Nukes, like washing-machines, need servicing, repairs, replacement of spare parts. Unlike washing-machines, they require not just nuts and bolts, but radioactive materials such as plutonium, uranium, tritium, plus high explosives, and the toxic metal beryllium.
How else could we have the reassurance of knowing that, at any given moment, one of our mighty (and ruinously expensive) Vanguard-class submarines, armed with 160-200 US-built Trident missiles, lurks on deep sea patrol, ready to bring the very world to an end. We’ll all sleep better for knowing that, I’m sure.
The MoD maintains that all this has to be done with the utmost secrecy, as too much openness would be an invitation to terrorists to ambush and detonate our nuclear deterrent, right in the middle of the M40 or the M74 or the M25, within striking distance of, say, Birmingham, or Glasgow.
But if Nukewatch can monitor these movements, taking photographs, delaying them with protests, informing the people, surely a terrorist could? Meanwhile, the MoD’s secret squirrel antics ensure that any kind of emergency response to an accident is compromised, and inevitably disastrous.
And accidents do happen. There were eight accidents between 1960 and 1991, and 180 “safety incidents” between 2000-16, including collisions, breakdowns, failing brakes…
On 10 January 1987, for instance, on an icy morning in Wiltshire, a TCHD skidded on a minor road, trying to pass a stationery vehicle, ran into the verge which gave way beneath it, causing it to tip sideways and land in a field, three feet below the level of the road. The TCHD following also skidded and ran into the verge.
As well as the risk of leakage is that of detonation. Nuclear warheads are designed to be “single point safe”; theoretically, if one is knocked at a single point, in an accident for instance, it shouldn’t go off. Then again, it might.
If a warhead was caught up in a serious accident, such as a multiple car pile-up, however, it would be knocked at more than one point, most likely. This could trigger a partial detonation, releasing lethal radiation doses, known as “inadvertent yield”. That would be v. bad, y’know?
Even the MoD, generally so tight-lipped on, well, everything, admits that the convoy is vulnerable, and potentially deadly.
“The ultimate nightmare is possible. A terrorist group could attack a nuclear convoy and cause a catastrophe unlike any ever seen in the UK. The prospect should give us all pause for thought.”
• Information taken from ‘Nukes of Hazard: The Nuclear Bomb Convoys on our Roads,’ published by Scottish CND