Between 1983 and 1991, the US stationed 96 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles at Greenham Common in Berkshire, prompting the most prolonged and iconic of the UK’s protests against nuclear weapons.
Now, previously top secret reports released to New Scientist by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) under freedom of information legislation show that the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston had estimated that 10 million people, including the population of London, could have been exposed to an “inhalation hazard” from plutonium if warheads exploded or caught fire.
It was “credible” for one warhead to detonate by accident and engulf another seven in a fire, one report said. In another report dated 11 February 1980, scientists worked out the “plutonium dispersion hazard” from a cruise missile fire. Of the 11 bases in England being considered for the missiles, Greenham Common posed the highest risks, the report said. It was “the worst site which has been examined” because it was the closest to large centres of population which could be exposed to radiation in the event of an accident.
The report said a fire in one storage cell, fed from fuel from the missiles, could result in the plutonium from eight warheads being blown across a large swathe of southern England. Still, the risk was considered “acceptable”.
That assessment was revised a few months later because new information from the US showed that warheads could indeed explode by accident. A second report was produced on 2 December 1980, after the US decided to station cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth in Cambridgeshire.
The report said: “If one warhead were to detonate it is possible that the other seven warheads in the storage cell could be engulfed in the fire which is virtually certain to ensue from the rupture of the missiles’ fuel tanks.” The risk was deemed to be “still acceptable”.
The MoD’s response is that it “does not confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons at any particular place at any particular time”. It added, “There has never been an accident involving nuclear weapons in the UK that has put the public at risk. The MoD maintains the highest standards of safety and security during the storage or transport of nuclear weapons.”
The Aldermaston reports featured in a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast at 8 pm on Monday 16 July.