The number of nuclear bombs being driven to and from the Clyde rose more than fivefold last year to help modernise Trident, according to new evidence from campaigners.

Close monitoring of the nuclear weapons convoys that regularly travel by road between the UK government’s Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Long suggests that 62 warheads were moved in 2016.

This compares to just 11 in 2015, 15 in 2014 and between six and eight in previous years. Critics suspect that the huge increase is because upgraded Mark 4A warheads were being fitted to Trident missiles carried by the nuclear submarine, HMS Vengeance.

The number of bombs on the move is likely to remain high in future years as the new warheads are installed on other Trident submarines, they say. On Wednesday 26 April 2017 a nuclear weapons convoy was filmed by a motorist driving through the countryside by the village of  Croftamie near Loch Lomond – and the footage was published by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The revelations have prompted alarm from the SNP and the Scottish Greens, who accuse the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of “chilling complacency” and risking a “catastrophic terrorist incident”. The MoD has refused to say whether, or why, it is moving more nuclear bombs.

The UK-wide group, Nukewatch, has been tracking the 20-vehicle nuclear weapons convoys for 30 years. It says it can tell from security and operational arrangements how many bombs they are carrying, and when dummy runs are made for training purposes.

The group has evidence that in 2016 six loaded convoys travelled from the Burghfield bomb factory in Berkshire to Coulport, with a further five going in the opposite direction. The convoys carried 34 refurbished warheads to Coulport, and sent 28 warheads down south for modernisation, it estimates.

The number of road convoys carrying nuclear weapons has more than doubled compared to previous years, Nukewatch says, while the number of dummy runs has dropped. It also suggests that the transport of warheads to be dismantled at Burghfield under international disarmament agreements has paused.

The sharp rise in bomb movements coincides with the planned introduction of upgraded Trident Mark 4A warheads, and HMS Vengeance returning to service after a three-year refit.

“The evidence suggests that not only are there a greater number of these deadly cargoes on the roads, but that the government is introducing modernised and even more lethal Trident warheads into service,” said Nukewatch’s Jane Tallents.

“While the rest of the world is meeting at the United Nations to draw up a multilateral treaty to ban nuclear weapons, the UK government is unilaterally and illegally modernising its weapons of mass destruction.”

The SNP’s Westminster defence spokesperson, Brendan O’Hara MP, said that the figures confirmed that nuclear weapons convoys were increasing. “The MoD has always shown chilling complacency on the transportation of nuclear convoys,” he told The Ferret.

“Trucks filled with nuclear material can be on the motorway or on main roads at any time of day or night without residents on the route ever knowing and that the frequency is increasing so rapidly is troubling.”

He condemned the secrecy that surrounds the nuclear convoys. “To pull the wool over people’s eyes about the awful practice of nuclear convoys travelling through our towns and cities so frequently is completely unacceptable.”

The Green MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, Mark Ruskell, has been receiving more reports of nuclear convoys passing through Stirling. “People are angry and are watching the roads with concern,” he said.

“Every extra warhead convoy is a massive security threat, increasing the risk of a catastrophic terrorist incident. The UK Government is trashing international agreements to reduce our nuclear warhead stockpiles and seems intent on re-arming its submarines for Armageddon.”

The MoD declined to comment on operational details. “The transportation of defence nuclear material is kept to the minimum required to support operational requirements,” said a spokesman.

Nuclear bombs on the move

YearTrident warheads transported to and from the Clyde
201662
20108
20116
20127
20136
201415
201511
Source: estimates by Nukewatch

Another video of the nuclear weapons convoy taken near Loch Lomond on 26 April 2017 and shared by Nukewatch can be viewed here. Photo also with thanks to Nukewatch.

Contributions

  1. conrad says:

    Hm so for some reason this topic wasn't here when I posted it earlier. Thoughts:

    From what I understand (and I may be wrong: this isn't my area), this invokes far more serious issues than you raise. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote about the super-fuze upgrade (Mark 4A) in March, and argue that they are fundamentally tipping the balance in our supposedly MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) world, creating the opportunity for a "successful" American first strike. They achieve this because the upgrade massively increases accuracy of detonation of these (relatively) small warheads, allowing them to target hardened targets (such as missile silos) with a much greater chance of success. This is only underlined by ever-improving American defensive weapons systems reducing enemies' chances of doing the same. Add to this the Russian's inferior early warning systems, and Russia seeing any attack both has less time to decide how to react, and must consider a much higher likelihood of an all-out strike: if they don't retaliate within minutes, their ability to retaliate at all will be gone altogether.

    This is a fairly terrifying asymmetry, and according to the article seems to have been achieved by the military without civilian oversight and without tickling international arms treaties.

    Here's the BotAS article:

  2. rob says:

    Many thanks, Conrad. You make a very valid point. There is strong evidence that the Mark 4A upgrade is dangerously destabilising in the way you suggest. This is a topic to which we hope to return.

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