Trident submarines are plagued by serious security lapses, beset by multiple safety blunders and “a disaster waiting to happen”, according to a nuclear weapons engineer turned whistleblower now being hunted by the police.
William McNeilly, who says he was on patrol with HMS Victorious from January to April this year, alleges that the Trident missiles it carries are vulnerable to a terrorist attack that “would kill our people and destroy our land.” Infiltrators have “the perfect opportunity to send nuclear warheads crashing down on the UK”, he claims.
He has written a detailed 18-page report called ‘The Nuclear Secrets’ claiming to lift the lid on the alarming state of the UK’s ageing and short-staffed nuclear deterrent. He went absent without leave from the Royal Navy last week, is on the run and expects to be arrested.
“This is bigger than me, it’s bigger than all of us,” he says. “We are so close to a nuclear disaster it is shocking, and yet everybody is accepting the risk to the public. If we don’t act now lives could be lost for generations.”
The risk was “extremely high”, he told the Sunday Herald. “My information comes from good sources and I have no reason to lie. If change isn’t made, a nuclear catastrophe almost certainly will happen.”
McNeilly’s report alleges 30 safety and security flaws on Trident submarines, based at Faslane on the Clyde. They include failures testing whether missiles could be safely launched, burning toilet rolls starting a fire in a missile compartment, and security passes and bags going unchecked.
He also reports alarms being muted because they went off so often, missile safety procedures being ignored and top secret information left unguarded. “It's just a matter of time before we're infiltrated by a psychopath or a terrorist,” he says. “There were some people that I served with on that patrol, who showed clear psychopathic tendencies.”
The Royal Navy has launched an investigation into McNeilly’s report, and is working with the civilian police to find him. It describes his criticisms as “subjective and unsubstantiated”, stressing that submarines never went to sea unless they were completely safe.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson MP, is demanding a full explanation and action to rectify all the failings. “These revelations, if true, are extremely concerning. It reads as a nightmare catalogue of serious safety breaches,” he said.
“They add to what appears to be a chaotic, shambolic safety culture on these aged subs. Broken or faulty equipment with no spares leading to slapdash patch-up jobs have no place in the Navy and just shows how utterly stretched it is.”
Robertson added: “Failure to follow standard safety procedures is unacceptable in any workplace but on a Trident submarine on patrol it could result in extreme tragedy, not just for those on board but indeed for the entire planet.”
McNeilly claims that there was a “massive cover up” of what happened when HMS Vanguard collided with the French nuclear submarine, Le Triomphant, in the Atlantic in February 2009. He quotes a senior officer who was on Vanguard at the time as saying: “We thought, this is it, we're all going to die.”
The crash dislodged high pressure air (HPA) bottles, he says. “They had to return to base port slowly, because if one of HPA bottle groups exploded it would have created a chain reaction and sent the submarine plummeting to the bottom.”
McNeilly also outlines a litany of equipment problems, including a seawater leak, a flooded torpedo compartment and defective toilets. A missile compartment was used as an exercise gym, he alleges, and the submarine speaker system was difficult to understand.
He insists that he has been careful about what he has said publicly in order to avoid prejudicing security. He repeatedly raised concerns with his superiors but they were ignored, he says.
McNeilly, who describes himself as “weapons engineer”, is 25 years old, and from Newtownabbey near Belfast. He says he joined the Navy in July 2013, and arrived at Faslane a year ago. After six months training, according to his account, he went on patrol with HMS Victorious for three months earlier this year.
It is difficult to independently verify all his allegations. The independent nuclear submarine expert, John Large, concluded McNeilly was credible, though he may have misunderstood some of the things he saw.
Large said: “Even if he is right about the disorganisation, lack of morale, and sheer foolhardiness of the personnel around him - and the unreliability of the engineered systems - it is likely that the Trident system as a whole will tolerate the misdemeanours, as it’s designed to do.”
The Royal Navy confirmed that McNeilly was a member of the naval service. “The Navy is concerned for the whereabouts and wellbeing of able seaman McNeilly and is working closely with civilian police to locate him,” it said.
His report did not pose any security risk to personnel or operations, it added. “The document contains a number of subjective and unsubstantiated personal views, made by a very junior sailor, with which the naval service completely disagrees.”
A Royal Navy spokeswoman stressed that security and nuclear safety were taken extremely seriously. “We are fully investigating both the issue of the unauthorised release of this document and its contents,” she said. “The naval service operates its submarine fleet under the most stringent safety regime and submarines do not go to sea unless they are completely safe to do so.”
But John Ainslie, coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, praised McNeilly. “He is a whistleblower who has revealed that there is a callous disregard for safety and security onboard Trident submarines,” he said.
“He should be commended for his action, not hounded by the Royal Navy. He has exposed the fact that Trident is a catastrophe waiting to happen - by accident, an act of terrorism or sabotage.”
30 Trident lapses alleged by report
- fire in missile compartment after toilet rolls caught light
- missile launch test failed three times
- failure to check hatch for launching missile
- missile safety alarms muted because they go off frequently
- missile control centre fault alarm ignored
- failure to follow safety procedures when working with missiles
- missile compartment used as an exercise gym
- bluetooth speaker in missile compartment in breach of rules
- seawater leak into hydraulic plant
- sprinkler flooding torpedo compartment
- submarine nearly lost after diving too deep
- loud bang when diving
- hydraulic pumps accidentally shutdown
- dysfunctional diesel generator
- water dripping onto electrical equipment
- fire risk from rubbish
- top secret information left unguarded
- sailors with psychopathic tendencies
- failure to check ID cards
- bags allowed near missiles without security checks
- electronic security gate not working
- too many sailors allowed on board
- crew speaker announcements unclear
- problems with distillers meant to provide water
- defective sewage system and flooded toilets
- fumes from cleaning materials
- ban on electronic equipment and e-cigarettes not enforced
- prank emergency phone calls
- Trident safety exam rigged
- cover-up of collision with French nuclear submarine
source: report by William McNeilly
This story prompted an editorial in the Sunday Herald. There are also articles by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Nuclear Information Service. The story was followed up by the Daily Record, the BBC, ITV, Sky News, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, the Daily Mail, The Scotsman, Indymedia, Wikileaks and many others. There was a letter published by the Sunday Herald.