The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has taken seven years to conduct a review of the risks of nuclear bomb convoys despite being told by its internal watchdog that the matter was “urgent”.

In 2011 the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) required the MoD to review its emergency “public protection zones” should a convoy crash and leak radioactivity. MoD plans assume that people within 600 metres will be evacuated while communities within five kilometres will be advised to stay indoors.

But the MoD has now admitted it is only expecting the review “to be fully closed out by the end of the year.” The existing evacuation and shelter zones did not need to be changed, it said.

Campaigners accused the MoD of “complacency” on public safety and have demanded an overhaul. The emergency zones were inadequate and should be extended, they said.

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.

On 21 May The Ferret revealed that safety problems plaguing the convoys had risen to a record high. Officials logged 44 incidents in 2017, bringing the total to 179 since 2008.

Safety mishaps during nuclear bomb convoys rise to record high

The DNSR recommended a review of the public protection zones after an emergency exercise codenamed Senator 2011 which tested responses to a “catastrophic” motorway pile-up on the M74, near Glasgow. The exercise envisaged a blowout causing a large goods lorry to cross the central reservation near the busy Raith interchange at Bellshill and crash into a nuclear bomb convoy.

In the imagined scenario one of the heavy duty trucks carrying nuclear weapons is hit, swerves and topples over. Leaking fuel bursts into flames and plutonium and uranium from burning warheads contaminate 100 people nearby and start spreading a cloud of contamination over communities downwind, causing a “nuke dust disaster”.

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How the Ministry of Defence imagined the simulated accident would be reported

The official post-mortem report of the exercise by the 21 public agencies involved – released under freedom of information law – revealed that the emergency services faced “major difficulties”. They had no help from key MoD weapons experts for more than five hours.

At times the response was “disorganised”, the report said. 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 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.

How the Ministry of Defence imagined TV coverage

As a result the DNSR issued the MoD with five formal findings on Senator 2011, one of which was about the “requirement to review the hazard assessment” determining the public protection zones. “This is outstanding from a number of previous exercises and now requires urgent attention,” the DNSR said.

The MoD’s official guide to local authorities and emergency services on nuclear weapons accidents suggests a 360-degree “evacuation zone” out to 600 metres. In addition it suggests a “downwind shelter zone” covering 45 degrees out to five kilometres, in which people would be advised to take shelter indoors to reduce the risk of radioactive contamination.

In answer to a parliamentary question on 27 June 2018, the UK government defence minister, Guto Bebb, disclosed that four of the DNSR findings had been completed, but one had not. “The final one has been addressed and we expect it to be fully closed out by the end of the year,” he said.

In response to questions from The Ferret, the MoD said that the uncompleted finding concerned the “review of public protection zones applied around any possible emergency in the extremely unlikely event of release of radioactive material.”

This kind of complacency is exactly what we have been ringing alarm bells about. Jane Tallents, Nukewatch Scotland

Nukewatch Scotland, which monitors nuclear bomb convoys, questioned whether the MoD was taking public safety seriously. “This kind of complacency is exactly what we have been ringing alarm bells about,” said the group’s Jane Tallents.

“The 600 metre evacuation zone and five kilometre shelter zone are an absolute minimum compared to other countries’ guidance and we would have hoped that a robust review would have extended these. The MoD should share the evidence they used to justify sticking with these limited public protection zones.”

On 2 May the Scottish Government’s then minister for community safety, Annabelle Ewing, told the Scottish Parliament she would ask the police and fire services in Scotland “to consider conducting a joint review” of the safety arrangements for the convoys.

Tallents was concerned this could end up being based on “unexplained advice” from the MoD. If that was the case “a wider review is urgently needed,” she argued.

She also pointed out that Midlothian Council, one of the many councils through which the convoy travels, had recently agreed to write to the MoD to ask what measures had been put in place to safeguard local people in the event of a convoy crash.

The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) group was alarmed by the MoD’s delay in completing the review of public protection zones. “I remain really concerned that there will be a serious accident or incident with these convoys, given ageing vehicles and the increased traffic on our major roads,’ said NFLA Scotland convener, Glasgow SNP councillor, Feargal Dalton.

“The ever growing secrecy around such convoys suggests the UK Government may have something to hide. The convoys are an ongoing danger to the public and we all need to know that they are safe.”

An extensive review concluded that the current zones remain appropriate. Spokesperson, Ministry of Defence

The Scottish Greens called for the fire and police review in Scotland to “dovetail” with the MoD’s review and to be made public. “Nuclear convoy contingency plans have been clouded in secrecy and incompetence for decades with councils and emergency services largely kept in the dark,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“This long overdue review must be done in conjunction with civil organisations who would have to pick up the pieces of any incident.”

The MoD stressed that public protection was paramount, along with minimising public disruption. “We take very seriously the safety of the public as part of our emergency planning procedures,” said an MoD spokesperson.

“An extensive review concluded that the current zones remain appropriate. The review provides assurance in the current measures.”

The reports on Exercise Senator 2011 in full

Photo thanks to Nukewatch Scotland. Newspaper mock-up and video thanks to Nuclear Information Service.