Exclusive, 16 June 2009
They are the most dangerous weapons on earth. They trundle through your town in heavily-armed convoys and they sail up the Clyde in submarines, but the Ministry of Defence (MoD) won't admit that they are there - and it may not tell the emergency services.
A secret MoD manual released under freedom of information legislation reveals that it is official policy neither to confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear bombs even when it is “obvious”. And in some accidents police, fire and ambulance services may not be told unless they ask.
The revelation has provoked alarm amongst councillors for the safety of members of the public and emergency workers. It is “downright silly” of the MoD not to warn councils when nuclear convoys are on the move, they say.
Large convoys carry warheads for Trident missiles by road several times a year between the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Long, north west of Glasgow. Vanguard-class submarines operating out of Faslane on the Gareloch are armed with the warheads.
For the first time the MoD has declassified extracts from an internal manual on the movement of the warheads and how to deal with any accidents. “It is UK policy to neither confirm nor deny (NCDC) the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any particular place or time,” it says.
“To be effective it must be consistently applied, even on occasions where the presence or absence of nuclear weapons may be thought to be obvious.”
The manual goes on to outline possible exceptions to the rule after “an accident or malicious intervention”. The NCDC policy may need to be set aside “where there is a potential or confirmed radiological or explosive risk to the public or emergency services”, it says.
It might also be necessary to confirm the presence of nuclear weapons when there are fires or other dangers “and where the emergency services request details of any hazards that may be present at the scene”, the manual states.
"In the event that there is, or is likely to be, widespread public alarm...responsibility for addressing that public alarm will lie with the civil police. In these circumstances the Convoy Commander on the scene must consult MoD HQ if the Home Departments/Scottish Police Force wish to confirm publicly the presence or absence of nuclear weapons.”
For Euan McLeod, a Glasgow councillor and chair of the nuclear-free group of local authorities in Scotland, the MoD policy is worrying. “If the MoD does not confirm whether dangerous nuclear weapons are on a convoy across the roads of Scotland how can we be sure of a safe and effective response to an accident from the emergency services and the host local authority?,” he asked.
“I don't want to see our firemen, police officers or ambulance workers put at danger through lack of knowledge of the contents of a convoy. A serious road accident involving a nuclear weapon is a nightmare scenario and I would be deeply concerned of an ineffective response because of MoD deniability.”
The point was reinforced by John Ainslie, the co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. “The large heavily-armed convoys which travel across Scotland are not delivering tea bags or toilet rolls to Coulport,” he said.
“The MoD should come clean and admit that they are transporting nuclear weapons. Any emergency services sent to a convoy should automatically be told what the lorries are carrying.”
Jim Duffy, chair of the Fire Brigades Union in Scotland expected that there would be pre-planned scenarios for dealing with nuclear accidents. “If it turns out that our employers don’t know the material is travelling, that gives us concern,” he stated.
Official responses from the emergency services last week were unenlightening. “We are part of the Strathclyde Emergencies Co-ordination Group which has robust arrangements to deal with a wide variety of incidents,” said a spokesman for Strathclyde Fire Brigade.
Superintendent Jim Watson, head of Strathclyde police planning, said: “We liaise regularly with the MoD Police and other agencies and have confidence in all the arrangements in relation to the escort of conveys.”
According to Lothian and Borders police, nuclear convoys were handled by the MoD. “If however, there is the slightest perceived risk to public safety, Lothian and Borders Police will be informed and will carry out all the necessary procedures to protect and maintain that safety,” said a force spokesman.
The MoD insisted that their policy ensured that there would be no delay in providing information to those involved in, or affected by, an incident. “In such circumstances the health and safety of the civilian population and others concerned would be paramount,” said an MoD spokesman.