Two of the UK’s most serious nuclear weapons accidents in the 1980s were caused by long term lapses in safety procedures, according to newly declassified government reports released to New Scientist under freedom of information laws. The accidents look more serious than previously admitted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The first accident happened on 2 May 1984 at RAF Bruggen in Germany. A nuclear warhead was damaged in transit when its container slid off a wet trailer as it turned a corner. The warhead rolled onto the tarmac and was dented within its container.
The base was shut down while the bomb was partially dismantled and scientists were flown in from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire, UK, to X-ray the warhead. The released reports show that they were worried about the stability of the conventional high explosives used to trigger the nuclear reaction, and the appearance of a "crack-like feature" on the X-rays.
But after 23 days, the bomb was deemed safe to transport and was flown back to Aldermaston for decommissioning. According to New Scientist, the MoD’s board of inquiry concluded that the accident was caused by the “wrongful act” of failing to attach the bomb container to the trailer, and recommended disciplining six servicemen.
Evidence to the inquiry revealed that a regulation saying that containers must be secured when moved had been routinely ignored since October 1981. Bruggen's commander at the time, whose name has been removed from the declassified report, admitted that the breach had almost become a standard operating procedure, though it was an "outrageously high risk practice".
The second accident occurred at Coulport naval base in Strathclyde, UK, on 3 December 1987, when a faulty Polaris missile was being unloaded from the Royal Navy submarine HMS Repulse. As the missile was being locked down onto a trailer, a crane unexpectedly hoisted it into the air, causing it to swing and crash into the trailer supports.
According to New Scientist, the MoD's board of inquiry found that the weapon had suffered "adverse shock". The inquiry blamed broken controls in the crane, which had missed 40 per cent of its regular mechanical and electrical checks in the previous 12 months. The inquiry concluded that had the crane been properly maintained, “it is highly probable that the incident would not have occurred”.
The board of inquiry also argued that pressure to move the missile hastily was "not conducive" to safety. "There was clear evidence of delay, frustration and an urgency to compete the operations quickly," it said.
The MoD, however, dismissed the accidents as “minor”. They were “fully investigated to rigorous safety standards and, where necessary, procedures were modified,” an MoD spokeswoman told New Scientist.
“The MoD continues to maintain the highest standards of safety and security during the storage, transportation or deployment of nuclear weapons. There has never been an accident involving UK nuclear weapons that has presented any risk to the public.”
Copies of the reports released by the Ministry of Defence on the accident at RAF Bruggen can be downloaded here.
Copies of the reports released on the Coulport and two other accidents involving nuclear weapons can be downloaded here.