Scotland is “wholly unprepared” to deal with an accident or an attack on the nuclear bomb convoys that regularly travel across the country, according to a new report.
Local authorities are accused of breaching their legal duty to safeguard the public by failing to assess and warn of the dangers. Scottish ministers are under fire for failing to make councils comply.
Campaigners are demanding an urgent review of measures to protect people from radioactive contamination from convoy crashes. They say that an accident could spread plutonium and other toxic materials over at least five kilometres.
Anti-nuclear groups have previously attacked the UK government for failing to ensure the safety of nuclear weapons transports. But now they are targeting Scottish central and local government for not doing enough.
Nuclear weapons are transported by road in 20-vehicle convoys up to eight times a year between the nuclear factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport, northwest of Glasgow.
The main routes taken go through 15 local authorities in Scotland, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and Falkirk. But none of the authorities have assessed the specific risks of convoy accidents, or informed communities along the way how to protect themselves.
Nukewatch UK, which monitors the convoys, says that councils are failing to comply with their duties under the 2004 Civil Contingencies Scotland Act. This obliges councils to conduct risk assessments of identifiable threats to public safety, and tell people of the dangers.
In a report called ‘Unready Scotland’, Nukewatch says that responses under freedom of information law from all 15 councils reveal that none of them have conducted safety assessments of nuclear bomb convoys. Scottish ministers have also failed to help them, it alleges.
“Local authorities are failing in their duties under the Act in respect of nuclear weapon convoys and the Scottish Government is in turn failing to ensure compliance,” the report concludes.
The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) would deal with the immediate impact of a nuclear convoy crash, while the Scottish Government is responsible for handling “off-site” consequences. Scottish ministers are “wholly unprepared to discharge that responsibility,” the report says.
The absence of public advice on nuclear convoys contrasts with what happens around the Faslane and Coulport nuclear bases on the Clyde. There, local communities are informed every three years what they should do in the event of a radiation leak.
The Scottish Greens warned that the report had exposed “a huge and critical gap in our emergency planning” and that action was essential to rebuild public trust. It was “disturbing” that councils had not examined bomb convoy risks, said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
“Councils have not assessed the impact of a release of radioactive material from these convoys yet they have assessed the risk from incidents such as flooding and explosions at industrial sites,” he stated.
“The Scottish Government, which is responsible for community safety and emergency planning, must urgently lead a review of the situation and make its findings public.”
Nukewatch pointed out that convoys travelled hundreds of miles on Scottish roads through densely populated urban areas. Yet even police officers on duty as they pass by seemed not to know what they were carrying.
“We have now reached the point where concerns about the public safety implications of the UK’s transport of nuclear warheads across Scotland can no longer be waved away,” said Nukewatch’s Dave Mackenzie, one of the authors of the report.
“The MoD seems to be more ready to acknowledge the risks of this transport than are the civil authorities in Scotland. Oversight of the effectiveness of the civil authority response rests squarely with the Scottish Government and a thorough review of that response is urgently required.”
According to the nuclear-free group of local authorities (NFLA), the report showed there was “confusion” over the response to convoy accidents. One problem was that councils weren’t informed of convoy movements, it argued.
“There needs to be a wider rethink about such convoys and greater cooperation with all responding emergency responders, including councils, so that the risks to the public can be fully unpacked and considered,” said NFLA Scotland representative, Audrey Doig, an SNP councillor from Renfrewshire.
Councils, however, insisted that they did comply with civil contingencies law, and had assessed chemical, biological and radioactive hazards. Regional “resilience partnerships” were informed by the UK government’s national risk register.
“Scotland’s councils take their community safety responsibility very seriously indeed,” said a spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.
“Councils will at all times endeavour to protect and support the public in the event of an emergency. This is a vital part of the work of a local authority.”
Glasgow City Council said risk assessments were carried out and communicated “in line with statutory guidance.” The City of Edinburgh Council pointed out that responding to a nuclear convoy crash was a matter for the MoD and Police Scotland.
Stirling Council said it was prepared to take an “all risks” approach to ensure an appropriate response if it were notified of a nuclear convoy in its area. Falkirk Council said: “Local authorities are not pre-warned on the route or timings of a convoy.”
The Scottish Government’s business and energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse, stressed the government’s “strong opposition” to nuclear weapons. “The responsibility for the transportation of nuclear warheads currently lies with the UK government’s Ministry of Defence,” he said.
“However, Scottish Government expects any such transportation to be carried out safely, securely and in line with regulatory requirements, and has made this expectation clear to the UK government.”
He added: “Our emergency services have plans in place for responding to any major incident. We support a strong network of resilience partnerships across Scotland which draw together key organisations to ensure we are ready to respond to a wide range of emergencies regardless of the cause.”
The MoD dismissed the Nukewatch report as “highly speculative and scaremongering”. A spokesman said: “Public safety is our absolute priority and robust arrangements are in place to ensure the safety and security of all these convoys. There has never been an incident posing a radiation hazard.”