The nuclear bomb convoy that regularly criss-crosses the UK by road has logged 40 safety incidents in the last three years, according to information released by the Ministry of Defence.
Convoy vehicles crashed twice and got caught up in other road accidents five times. They also suffered multiple brake faults, breakdowns and power losses.
The convoy, which carries nuclear warheads, caused the closure of roads or motorway lanes 11 times. It was delayed by lorry fires, a spillage and two outbreaks of Covid.
In one case the convoy had to deal with an “erratic driver interfering with the convoy”. In another, it closed a road after a motorist caught using a mobile phone tried to run away.
Campaigners described the safety lapses as “concerning” and argued that small incidents could easily escalate into something more serious. They said that the risks being taken by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) were unjustified.
An SNP MP criticised the MoD for keeping the locations, dates and other details of the incidents secret.
The MoD said that it only transported nuclear weapons “when necessary” and that the safety and security of the public was “the highest priority”.
A convoy of 20 or more vehicles transports nuclear warheads between the Burghfield nuclear weapons factory in Berkshire and the Royal Navy’s armaments depot at Coulport on Loch Long in Scotland at least six times a year. The warheads require regular maintenance.
The Ferret reported in 2018 that the MoD recorded 157 safety incidents involving the convoy between 2008 and 2017. The number logged in 2017 — 44 — was a record high.
In response to a request under freedom of information law, the MoD has now released short summary logs of incidents involving the convoy during 2019, 2020 and 2021. The dates are blacked out, no locations are given and the pages were previously marked “official sensitive”.
Of the 40 incidents, 22 are categorised as “operational” and 18 as “engineering”. One of the two crashes involving a convoy vehicle caused “minor injuries” and a delay of two hours and 45 minutes. The other was attended by the police and caused a 32-minute delay.
The convoy was also diverted or delayed by five other road crashes in which it was not directly involved. It stopped to offer assistance three times.
Other delays were caused by two lorry fires, a spillage, motorway closures, resurfacing works and traffic congestion. The convoy suffered six brake problems, including a “seizure” and “overheating”, two vehicle breakdowns, two losses of power and two punctures, one of which caused a two-hour delay.
There was also a communications “failure”, a clutch fault and brake, gearbox and other warning lights. An “air conditioning leak” caused “excessive smoke”.
On two occasions, Covid caused problems. In one, a convoy member had to go to hospital causing the convoy to be “reduced” and in another “suspected cases” caused a 90-minute delay.
Other incidents included “erratic driver interfering with the convoy”, “disjointed convoy configuration”, a “motorway fatality” and missing a turn.
In one instance a vehicle near the convoy was “stopped for mobile phone usage,” the MoD said. “The driver subsequently ran, causing the convoy to close the road for safety”.
According to Nukewatch, a campaign group which monitors the nuclear convoys, most people weren’t aware that nuclear warheads are regularly transported on public roads.
“Safety lapses relating to nuclear weapons are always concerning, and people will be surprised that these incidents are so common,” said the group’s Jane Tallents.
“Transporting these weapons along main roads and through urban areas only adds unnecessary danger to our lives. In complex operations like the transport of nuclear weapons it is impossible to avoid accidents, and a small incident can easily escalate to a more serious situation.”
The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament criticised the MoD for taking unjustified risks. “There is in fact no benefit arising from this risk-taking behaviour,” said the campaign’s David Mackenzie.
“These risks are being taken for the sake of servicing an illegal and inhumane weapon system. The traffic should cease as soon as the final trips take the wretched things back to the atomic weapon factories in Berkshire to be dismantled and destroyed.”
The MoD defended its decision to keep the dates of incidents from 2019 to 2021 secret, while accepting that they had previously been published. The information “would enable adversaries to build more of a picture of convoy movement which would allow them to make assessments on the warhead maintenance schedule,” the MoD said.
“It would also increase the opportunity for transport convoys to be disrupted, especially in the current climate with increasing action by various protest groups.”
According to the MoD, this could cause shortages of nuclear weapons for the submarines which continuously patrol the oceans. This “would prejudice our national security by changing the decision calculations of potential adversaries such that they may be more willing to attack the UK”, it added.
MoD secrecy was attacked by the SNP MP for West Dunbartonshire, Martin Docherty-Hughes. “The fact that the MoD has fought so hard not to provide this basic information tells us everything we need to know,” he told The Ferret.
“In a free and democratic society, an informed populace is the most effective protection against the tyrannies the MoD believes these warheads protect us from.”
He added: “The MoD’s primary concern should be with informing and educating the public who bear the cost of these weapons of mass destruction, not creating spurious arguments as to why they cannot be transparent and straightforward with us.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: “Defence nuclear materials are transported only when necessary, and the safety and security of the public are the highest priority.
“All convoy operations follow strict and safe procedures, and in over 50 years of transporting nuclear material by road in the UK, there has never been an incident that has posed any radiation hazard to the public or the environment.”
The nuclear convoy incident logs released by the Ministry of Defence
Cover image thanks to Nukewatch.
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