Top secret mock nuclear accidents testing the responses of the military and emergency services have revealed numerous mistakes that would have led to “avoidable deaths”, according to official assessments.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was so concerned about the problems that it carried out “an overarching, fundamental review” of arrangements for handling serious nuclear weapons incidents behind closed doors last year.
Assessments of emergency exercises by the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), expose a string of mishaps including life-threatening delays, equipment shortages, coordination failures and communication breakdowns. One report criticises officials for “substantially understating” the scale of the dangers facing the public in a staged briefing for the media.
The MoD took more than two years to agree to hand over reports on three nuclear bomb exercises in 2011 and 2012, despite freedom of information law requiring documents to be released within 20 working days. The reports, redacted by the MoD to keep details confidential, are being published today by The Ferret, in tandem with The Guardian (see below).
Two of the exercises imagined aircraft carrying nuclear weapons ingredients crashing and spreading plutonium and other radioactive contamination up to five kilometres away. They were both codenamed Astral Bend, one taking place at the Caerwent military base in south Wales on 24 February 2011, the other at Heyford Park in Oxfordshire on 27 March 2012.
At the 2011 exercise there was a major mix-up over how to deal with contaminated casualties. The fire service was criticised by DNSR for refusing to allow ambulance teams to take away seriously injured people until they had been decontaminated.
“The interpretation of the absolute necessity to decontaminate every casualty or person from within the determined “hot zone” did, and would in the event of such an incident, lead to avoidable deaths,” concluded the DNSR report.
The training of military commanders was “inadequate” because of cutbacks and there was a “lengthy delay” before they liaised with emergency services, the report said. It added: “There were significant difficulties with a number of broader command and control issues which inhibited effective integration with the emergency services.”
Media questions at a briefing during Astral Bend 2011 were “not well handled, in particular substantially understating the scale of the hazards ”, the report said. Military officials should “endeavour to avoid being drawn into excessive detail” by the media, it urged.
At a media briefing during the second Astral Bend exercise in 2012 there was “an unfortunate ambiguity” about the extent of radioactive contamination. Emergency responders were contaminated at the scene, a helicopter was delayed and fax numbers were “incorrectly notified”.
There were significant difficulties with a number of broader command and control issues which inhibited effective integration with the emergency services. Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator
The third exercise envisaged an accident involving the 20-vehicle nuclear weapons convoy that regularly travels by road between Burghfield in Berkshire and Coulport on the Clyde near Glasgow. It was called Astral Climb and was played out on 15 November 2012 at Albemarle barracks in Northumberland.
For reasons that have been redacted, the bomb convoy prevented fire and ambulance services from accessing casualties for 40 minutes when their help was “critically required”, the DNSR report said, adding: “This may have contributed to the number of fatalities within the exercise.”
There were “delays and a lack of urgency” in rescuing casualties, and flaws in the way they were handled, the report added. “The role of the convoy medic was unclear and the provision of medical equipment was not adequate.”
DNSR pointed out that exercises had shown the need for “an overarching, fundamental review” of emergency response arrangements. This review was carried out in 2015, according to the MoD, but it has not been published.
The independent nuclear consultant, John Large, argued that if there were an accident close to an urban area the emergency response “would be totally inadequate to protect many hundreds if not thousands of members of public.”
The Astral exercises were “characterised by delay upon delay, with crucial time being eked away by duplication of effort and confusion on the ground,” he said. Mr Large added: “In the chaotic aftermath of a real incident there is little reassurance that the MoD and our civilian emergency services would at all cope.”
The MoD stressed that the safety of the public was always its priority. “We can be clear that convoys are conducted to the strictest safety standards,” said an MoD spokeswoman.
“We always take into account factors such as road and weather conditions and consult with all relevant local agencies, including traffic agencies and the police. In over 50 years of transporting nuclear material by road in the UK, there has never been an incident that has presented any risk to the public or to the environment.”
The Welsh Ambulance Service said that “much has moved on” since Astral Bend in 2011. ”These exercises contribute to discovering any areas that perhaps need further improvement,” said the service’s spokesman, Richard Timothy.
“The Welsh Ambulance Service has now established a fully operational hazardous area response team which are on regular training and exercises, often with the fire service and other emergency services. They are well-trained in appropriate responses to chemical, radiation, biological and nuclear incidents.”
In over 50 years of transporting nuclear material by road in the UK, there has never been an incident that has presented any risk to the public or to the environment. Ministry of Defence
The South Wales Fire and Rescue Service did not respond to requests to comment.
Anti-nuclear groups claimed that the exercise assessments exposed “major weaknesses” in the MoD plans for responding to nuclear accidents. “The MoD’s rickety old nuclear safety arrangements are not up to the job of keeping the public, emergency responders, or MoD personnel safe,” said Peter Burt from the Nuclear Information Network.
He added: “While ministers are racing ahead to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system, work on improving nuclear emergency plans seems to be a much lower priority and is proceeding at a much more sedate place.”
An earlier Astral Bend exercise on 12 May 2010 envisaged a US plane carrying nuclear weapons crashing and spreading radioactive contamination. Official assessments released in 2011 concluded that the MoD specialist response team “struggled to manage”.
Another nuclear weapons exercise on 13-15 September 2011 called Senator exposed problems dealing with a catastophic motorway pile-up near Glasgow. The emergency services faced “major difficulties” responding to the accident, according to a DNSR assessment released in 2013.
John Ainslie from the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament suggested that a nuclear weapons accident was “inherently very dangerous” and the emergency response was likely to be inadequate. He said: “If there is a real incident then we can expect there to be fatal delays in treating casualties and misleading information provided to the public,” he said.
The reports released by the Ministry of Defence
Photos thanks to Nukewatch.