An emergency exercise imagining an explosion spreading radioactive contamination from a nuclear bomb convoy crash in East Lothian was hampered by communication breakdowns that would have put people at risk.
An official assessment of the exercise by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been passed to The Ferret. It reveals that paper masks worn by the emergency services would have failed to protect them from radioactivity leaking from a damaged nuclear warhead.
During the exercise police could not hear the convoy commander over the radio because he was wearing a respirator. Police also missed vital safety information because they failed to invite the commander to briefing meetings, and were criticised by the MoD for being “unfamiliar” with emergency procedures.
Campaigners condemned the exercise, codenamed Astral Climb, for not testing measures for protecting the public. They accused the MoD of failing to learn from mistakes made in previous nuclear bomb convoy exercises.
The MoD, however, stressed that the point of exercises was to highlight “potential improvements”. There had never been an accident transporting nuclear materials that had posed a radiation hazard to the public, it claimed.
Police Scotland pointed out that the MoD had recommended changes to deal with the problems that arose. The aim was to “continuously improve our response to incidents”, it said.
The Scottish Government is due to publish a report soon on the safety of transporting nuclear weapons by road. Ministers asked the police and fire inspectorates to review the “preparedness” of Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service for dealing with bomb convoys.
Convoys comprising up to 20 or more military vehicles transport Trident nuclear warheads by road at least six times a year between the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Long, near Glasgow. and the bomb factory at Burghfield in Berkshire. The warheads have to be regularly maintained at Burghfield.
Though they are meant to be secret, the convoys are often photographed, filmed and followed on social media. They travel close to major centres of population such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham.
In May 2018 The Ferret revealed that safety problems plaguing the convoys had risen to a record high, with 44 incidents logged in 2017. A report by campaigners has warned that Scotland was “wholly unprepared” to deal with an accident or an attack on a convoy.
The scenario for exercise Astral Climb was that a heavy goods vehicle (HGV) lost control and crashed into one of the armoured trucks carrying nuclear warheads at the junction between the A199 and A198 near the A1 between Dunbar and East Linton. Two cars and a van were also involved in the accident.
According to the MoD’s post-exercise report, a nuclear warhead in the truck “is disrupted by the impact and partially explodes causing a release of radioactive contamination.”
The report added: “Passengers and drivers of both the HGV and the private cars are trapped and injured by the collision.”
The exercise used real vehicles, fires and amputee actors “made up by special effects artists to simulate life-threatening injuries”. It took place at Longannet in Fife, the site of an old coal-fired power station, on 22 June 2016.
The MoD report suggested, however, that the scenario couldn’t actually happen. “It was accepted by all agencies participating that the energy involved in such a collision would not be sufficient to cause a release of radioactive material and that the scenario was only being used to facilitate play,” it said.
Contamination levels close to the truck could be expected to be too high for this kind of respiratory protective equipment to be effective. Ministry of Defence report
The report exposed a series of problems with communications during Astral Climb that threatened safety. “Some responders were working very close to the truck wearing just a paper mask for personal protective equipment,” it stated.
“Contamination levels close to the truck could be expected to be too high for this kind of respiratory protective equipment to be effective.”
The convoy commander was questioned why he had not informed responders of the dangers. According to the MoD report, the explanation was that the information had been in an issued pack but that attention had not been drawn to it.
“The Police Scotland control room staff reported that it was impossible to understand what was being transmitted by Airwaves from the convoy commander due to him wearing a respirator,” the report said.
“A review of convoy communications should be undertaken to determine if a more effective method of communicating alert messages can be found.”
The report highlighted that “significant information” on safety was “missed” because the civil emergency services had not invited convoy staff to briefing meetings. “These meetings would have benefited from the convoy commander’s technical knowledge,” it said.
“Convoy commanders should be invited to all command meetings.”
The MoD report observed that exercises were not done “regularly” in the east of Scotland police force area. “The control operator was unfamiliar with the procedures”, it said.
An “error” in the exercise instruction meant that written information was not sent out to the civil emergency services control room. There was also “an artificial delay when one of the contacts was not available”.
The MoD is now conducting convoy accident exercises which don’t even pretend to test any measures to protect the public from a radiation release. Jane Tallents, Nukewatch
It took more than two years for the MoD to release the report on Astral Climb in response to a freedom of information request by the campaign group, Nukewatch. The MoD apologised for such a “severe delay” and redacted sections of the report to protect “national security” and “personal information”.
The Scottish co-ordinator of Nukewatch, Jane Tallents, accused the MoD of failing to safeguard the public. “The MoD is now conducting convoy accident exercises which don’t even pretend to test any measures to protect the public from a radiation release,” she said.
“In the past more realistic exercise scenarios still stopped short of actual evacuation and sheltering of the public but at least played out on paper how that might be done. For Astral Climb 2016 the MoD imagined a convoy on a back road it never uses nowhere near any population centres.”
She added: “Nukewatch can only conclude that the MoD itself realises that a robust test of emergency procedures would always show that the public would be put at risk. Therefore they have moved to an annual box ticking exercise with the minimum of information being released to the public.”
Tallents urged the Scottish Government and emergency services to demand more transparency. “The scenarios for future exercises should be set by the regulators and civil emergency services to ensure that they are realistic and challenging,” she told The Ferret.
“Of course the best way to protect the public is to stop transporting nuclear warheads on our roads altogether.”
The Scottish Greens led a debate on nuclear convoys in the Scottish Parliament in May 2018, prompting the then community safety minister, Annabelle Ewing, to promise a review by police and fire inspectors. It was important to now publish the review, according to Green environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
“These failures underline the huge practical problems that civil and military personnel would have to deal with in the event of even a relatively minor incident involving a convoy,” he said.
“They are not new concerns and it appears the MoD has not learned the lessons from previous exercises over the decades.”
Nuclear weapons were “abhorrent”, Ruskell argued. “But for as long as nuclear warheads are being driven on Scotland’s roads we need to know what safety precautions are being put in place to attempt to manage the considerable hazards.”
The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND) described the MoD report on Astral Climb as a “massive cause for concern”. Nuclear weapons were a “major threat” to the health and safety of local communities, it warned.
“The communication difficulties experienced by agencies such as the police have been highlighted in previous reports so yet again the MoD does not seem to learn from previous experience,” said SCND chair, Arthur West.
“Perhaps most worryingly of all the MoD seems to want to deny or play down the release of radioactive materials which would result from this type of incident.”
The Scottish Government pointed out that the transportation of defence nuclear material in Scotland was a reserved matter for the MoD. “The Scottish Government expects any such transportation to be carried out safely and securely and has made this expectation clear to the UK government,” said a spokesperson.
The “preparedness review” of the road transportation of defence nuclear material in Scotland would be published “in due course”.
In over 50 years of transporting nuclear material, an incident has never posed a radiation hazard to either the public or the environment. Spokesperson, Ministry of Defence
The Ministry of Defence insisted that the chance of a nuclear convoy accident causing a radiation hazard was “extremely low”. Nuclear weapons were only transported when “necessary to meet operational requirements”, it said.
“The purpose of these exercises is to allow all parties, including local authorities and emergency services, to test their response plans and make any necessary changes to guarantee public safety,” an MoD spokesperson told The Ferret.
“Since 2017 we have adopted the same communication principles to aid joint working between MoD and civil emergency responders. Public safety is our absolute priority and robust arrangements are in place to ensure the safety and security of all convoys.”
The spokesperson added: “In over 50 years of transporting nuclear material, an incident has never posed a radiation hazard to either the public or the environment.”
Police Scotland pointed out that the issues raised in the MoD report had been addressed by recommended changes. The aim of exercises was to keep improving emergency responses, it said.
Police superintendent, Pat O’Callaghan, added: “Police Scotland is regularly involved in planning, testing and exercising with a variety of policing partners, other emergency services and resilience partners in line with civil contingency and other legislation to continuously improve our response to incidents and that of our partners”.