An emergency exercise has exposed serious weaknesses in Britain's ability to cope with a catastrophic motorway pile-up in which a nuclear bomb convoy burns and spreads a cloud of radioactive contamination over nearby communities.
An internal report released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) reveals that the emergency services faced “major difficulties” responding to the mocked-up accident near Glasgow because they had no help from key MoD weapons experts for more than five hours.
At times the response was “disorganised”, the report says. Heated disputes with ambulance staff over how to handle casualties contaminated with radioactivity at the crash site caused “considerable delay”, resulting in one victim being declared dead.
There were also a series of other problems, including out-dated, paper-based communications systems, poor mobile phone signals, conflicting scientific advice on health hazards and “confusion” over radiation monitoring.
Nuclear weapons are transported in heavily-guarded road convoys up to six times a year between the bomb factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Long in Argyll. The trips are needed to ensure that the UK’s stockpile of around 200 Trident missile warheads is properly maintained.
Every three years, the MoD conducts a major exercise to test responses to a serious road accident. The last one, codenamed Exercise Senator 2011, took place on 13-15 September two years ago and involved over 1,000 people and 21 public agencies, including the police, fire and ambulance services, local authorities, the Scottish government and the Cabinet Office.
The exercise’s official post-mortems plus a short, soundless video (left), have been released under freedom of information law. The accident scenario, described as “a series of catastrophic, highly improbable events”, envisages a large goods lorry suffering an offside front tyre blowout while travelling north on the M74, near junction five at Bellshill to the south of Glasgow.
The lorry crashes through the central reservation and into one of three “heavy duty” nuclear weapons carriers heading south on the motorway. The weapons carrier swerves and topples over, fuel bursts into flames and plutonium and uranium start leaking from damaged warheads. A second weapons carrier has to take evasive action and is involved in another collision with a lorry.
Up to 100 people are contaminated with radioactivity from the simulated accident, seven suffer serious injuries and two are killed. The exercise was carried out on a field near HMS Gannet, a Royal Navy search and rescue base at Prestwick airport in South Ayrshire, with coordination centres in East Kilbride, Glasgow, London, Bristol and Aldermaston.
The most serious problem identified in an assessment by the MoD’s Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) was the time it took for the experts on the MoD’s Military Coordinating Authority to get from their base at Abbey Wood in Bristol to the police’s emergency control centre in East Kilbride. They didn’t arrive until five and a half hours after the accident had started.
“This lack of support created major difficulties for the multi-agency response, which struggled to attain a meaningful understanding of the issues,” said the DNSR report. The absence of MoD expertise “over such an extended and critical period was not acceptable.”
The report also highlighted the refusal of the Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) to transport two seriously injured people to hospital because they were contaminated with radioactivity. Royal Marines and MoD Police took a rapid decision to “crash the cordon” and take them in military vehicles.
“There were periods when the response became disorganised, and it was less than clear who was in charge at the scene,” said the DNSR report. Discussions with SAS staff “resulted in considerable delay in developing a plan to manage the (contaminated) casualties.”
Further delays sending in paramedics to retrieve radioactive casualties were “escalated” to incident commanders “but without adequate resolution”. A footnote added: “Another serious casualty was declared dead due to the extended delay.”
SAS pointed out, however, that the agreed procedure was for specially trained ambulance teams to decontaminate and treat patients at the scene. “This is to ensure that a radioactive patient is clinically decontaminated before transfer to hospital, in order to avoid creating a further contamination incident at the hospital, which could close it to the general public and put others at risk,” said an SAS spokesman.
A second report on Exercise Senator 2011 produced with the help of all the agencies involved lists a raft of additional problems. There was “concern” that the first written notification of the accident received by the police was by fax, and “poor” mobile phone coverage.
The use of paper to pass on vital messages at the police’s East Kilbride control centre was “not fit for purpose and exposes the force and other agencies to criticism and potential reputation damage”, said the report.
Despite the problems, the MoD insisted that the exercise had successfully demonstrated its ability to cope in an emergency. “Some improvements were identified to further enhance procedures and these have since been addressed,” said an MoD spokesman.
The MoD reports and video were obtained by the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), which monitors weapons activities. “This exercise shows that, at the height of the crisis, Scotland or remote parts of the UK would be left to fend for themselves by Whitehall in the event of an emergency involving a British nuclear weapon,” said NIS’s Peter Burt.
Angus Robertson MP, the Scottish Nationalist defence spokesman at Westminster, questioned why the MoD had to send a team from Bristol when there was meant to be expertise at the Clyde naval bases. “It simply beggars belief, defies all common sense and makes sobering reading,” he said.
According to Glasgow Labour councillor, Bill Butler, who chairs the nuclear-free local authorities group in Scotland, the exercise raised alarm bells. “I urge the MoD to take the outcomes of this exercise very seriously and work more closely with local authorities and the emergency services to resolve these planning gaps,” he said.