Potentially catastrophic lapses in nuclear weapons safety at the Clyde naval base have been exposed by secret Ministry of Defence (MoD) reports released after a three-year freedom of information battle.
The handling of up to 200 nuclear warheads on Trident missiles at Faslane and Coulport near Helensburgh has been plagued by “difficulties” “confusion”, “shortcomings” and “non-compliance”, according to the MoD’s internal safety watchdogs.
“The fragmentation of approaches to safety management issues does not engender confidence," warned Andy Moore, the MoD’s Nuclear Weapon Regulator. “This is a resource issue for a naval base that is heavily loaded and subject to funding constraints.”
Critics pointed out that poor safety procedures for nuclear weapons could lead to accidents scattering deadly plutonium across the country. The MoD, however, insisted that its safety record was “as robust as possible”.
The MoD released a series of reports by its nuclear safety regulators last week on the eve of an appeal to the UK Information Tribunal that threatened to expose the ministry’s multiple breaches of freedom of information law. The MoD has been trying since 2007 to keep the reports secret.
The reports give a unique insight into the managing of Britain’s bomb, the most secretive and dangerous of the MoD’s activities. Written in 2005 and 2006, they reveal dozens of problems ensuring the safety of the nuclear weapons programme.
The worst problems were centred at Faslane and Coulport, where progress in ensuring safety was “somewhat mixed”. As well as a shortage of resources, there was “an apparent lack of understanding of the needs of regulators,” said a report by Moore.
There were difficulties with the replacement of key warhead components and with the use of the controversial shiplift, he disclosed. This all had an “impact on Clyde's demonstrability of safety of nuclear weapons programme activities” and had delayed the base’s “programme to authorisation”.
There was “slow progress in implementing the regulation framework for the nuclear weapons programme”, said Moore. The was also a risk of “confusion of responsibilities” between the Clyde base and the commanders of submarines armed with Trident missiles.
Although there had been improvements in some areas, he concluded that there was still work to be done to bring the regulation of nuclear weapons up to scratch. “There remain issues where former instincts continue to dominate thinking,” he said.
According to the independent nuclear consultant, John Large, the report showed that military nuclear safety was weaker and less accountable than safety at nuclear power stations. Funding restrictions had clearly undermined nuclear weapons safety on the Clyde, he said.
“Let’s hope that the coalition government’s long-awaited spending review doesn’t cut back further on critical nuclear safety funding,” he said. Failures during delicate operations to replace key warhead components at Coulport “could result in a significant off-site radioactive release”, he warned.
The MoD reports, seen by the Sunday Herald, also reveal a litany of problems elsewhere in Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. They include:
- hazards from the nuclear bomb convoys that regularly trundle around the country by road due to “crew fatigue”;
- dangers that a warhead could leak radioactive tritium in an accident with a "potential impact on workforce and public protection”;
- “inconsistent arrangements for managing transport activities” and a risk that the movement of nuclear materials “does not meet departmental standards”;
- an “uncertain” commitment to nuclear safety regulation by submarine commanders;
- “poor practice” at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire; and
- the risk of people becoming contaminated in an accident with a nuclear submarine at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
John Ainslie, the coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, accused the MoD of having a disjointed approach to the safety of Trident. “There is confusion over who is responsible - the Base Commander in Faslane or Commander-in-Chief Fleet in Northwood, Hertfordshire,” he said.
“If the Nuclear Weapon Regulator lacks confidence in this system then the general public should be concerned. This is the most dangerous work undertaken anywhere in Britain, yet it appears to be regulated in a haphazard manner.”
An MoD spokesman insisted that it took issues raised by its internal nuclear safety regulators seriously: “We act on their recommendations to ensure that our safety performance is as robust as possible,” he said.
How a bullet could trigger a nuclear disaster
It’s a nightmare scenario, but the official record shows that it could happen. A bullet fired by a Ministry of Defence (MoD) guard could detonate the high explosives in a nuclear bomb and spread plutonium across Scotland.
Documents from 1978 recently released by the government reveal that a small arms attack on a nuclear warhead could result in an explosion “and a consequent spread of radioactive debris". In military jargon the risk is known as RATTAM – Response to Attack of Ammunition.
So when in the MoD police decided to upgrade from pistols to a more powerful MP7 firearm made by the German arms company, Heckler and Koch, the accidental explosion of a nuclear warhead had to be considered.
The MP7 was chosen because of its capacity to pierce the kind of body armour worn by suicide bombers, so there were fears it might also penetrate bomb casing. More than 1,500 of the guns were ordered for the MoD’s 3,800 police officers in 2005.
One of the documents released by the MoD last week after a prolonged freedom of information battle revealed that the MoD’s internal nuclear safety watchdog was still anxiously trying to get information on the MP7 in September 2006. But experts within the MoD had “yet to provide advice”.
According to John Ainslie from the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a bullet hitting a Trident missile in the Explosives Handling Jetty at Coulport on the Clyde could trigger a “massive explosion and the dispersal of large amounts of lethal plutonium”.
He said: “We should not have to live with the danger that one unstable or accident-prone policeman could cause a major nuclear accident and leave large parts of our countryside contaminated with radiation.”
The five reports released by the Minister of Defence are available to download here as pdfs: Nuclear Weapon Regulator Annual Report 2004-05, Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator Inspection Report, Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator-Nuclear Weapon Regulator Quarterly Report, Atomic Weapons Establishment, Exercise Indian Footprint 2006.