The nuclear bomb convoys that shuttle across the country have reported 43 safety incidents in the last three years, according to Ministry of Defence (MoD) reports published by The Ferret.
The hitherto unknown mishaps include three collisions and a series of breakdowns and equipment failures. They bring the total number of incidents that have plagued nuclear convoys to 180 since 2000.
Brakes have failed, fuel has leaked and engines have overheated. The convoy has got lost and been delayed or diverted by bad weather, accidents and protests. On one occasion it had to cope with “dogs loose on the carriageway”.
The SNP described the revelations as “chilling” and “shocking” and warned that communities were being put at risk. But the MoD insisted that the convoys were safe.
Convoys comprising up to 20 military vehicles transport Trident nuclear warheads about 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 take a variety of west and east coast routes close to major centres of population such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham.
The most recent convoy was seen leaving Burghfield on 14 September last week, and was stopped twice by protestors in Scotland on 15 September. It was then seen heading back down south on 19 September.
In response to a request under freedom of information law, the MoD has released new logs listing 43 engineering and operational incidents reported by nuclear convoys between January 2013 and July 2016. It has previously released logs of 67 incidents between 2000 and 2007 and 70 incidents between 2007 and 2012 (see below).
The new logs reveal that revealed that the convoy had two collisions in May 2013, though the locations are not disclosed. One was described by the MoD as a “minor road traffic collision involving two convoy vehicles” that left “marks to bumper on one vehicle”.
The other happened when a convoy escort vehicle was leaving a rest break at an unnamed MoD base. According to the MoD, it resulted in “contact with a parked civilian vehicle”.
In January 2014 an escort vehicle was involved in another “minor road traffic collision” with a car at an MoD base. In the same month slush and snow on the convoy route necessitated a “rolling road block” and caused a 21-minute delay.
In November 2014 the MoD reported that a heavy-duty warhead carrier suffered a “defective interlock” which caused the convoy to be halted. Another warhead carrier broke down and lost power when it was leaving an MoD site in September 2015, and had to return to the site.
Two convoy escort vehicles were taken out of action in November 2013 after one broke down and another displayed a warning light. In July 2015 two more escort vehicles broke down and were rendered “unserviceable”.
In November 2013 the convoy departure was delayed and the route changed when the Erskine Bridge over the river Clyde near Glasgow was closed during bad weather. In July 2014 the convoy was delayed by 30 minutes “due to civilian vehicle on fire on Erskine Bridge”.
The convoy was forced to stop for an hour because a protestor was glued to the roof of a warhead carrier
Warheads carriers had “cab tilt warning” lights come on three times in May 2013, November 2014 and January 2015. High security vehicles used to carry nuclear materials experienced a battery failure in October 2013, and a temperature gauge registering 110 degrees in March 2014.
The convoy fire engine “developed an automatic transmission leak” in December 2015. A convoy command vehicle “developed a clutch problem on route” in January 2016, and had to be replaced. In May 2016 a support vehicle “suffered equipment electrical failure”, said the MoD.
Motorcycle escorts also had punctured tyres, and there were other warning lights, problems and mishaps. Traffic accidents, roadworks, road closures and a lubricant spillage caused the convoy to be delayed or rerouted.
In July 2014 the convoy was forced to stop for an hour because a protestor was glued to the roof of a warhead carrier. According to the MoD, protests also caused delays in January and March 2016.
In November 2015 there were “dogs loose on the carriageway on route”. The convoy’s departure was delayed in January 2016 as it had been “programmed for the same time as the end of a local football match with fans leaving ground.”
Among the many incidents reported previously was a mechanical failure in July 2011 when a convoy command vehicle “suffered a sudden and dramatic loss of power” and had to pull onto the hard shoulder of the northbound carriageway of the M6 motorway near junction 20 in Cheshire.
According to the MoD, the vehicle had suffered a “fuel system failure” that turned out to be a “manufacturing fault”, which had to be rectified across the whole fleet. On other occasions the convoy went the wrong way, lost communications and suffered computer glitches.
40 nuclear convoy incidents reported by the Ministry of Defence
|March 2002||wheel of load carrier showed signs of overheating|
|August 2002||engineering fault on convoy support vehicle|
|January 2003||bomb carrier engine brake became inoperative|
|February 2003||bomb carrier clutch became inoperative|
|May 2003||bomb carrier engine overheating|
|May 2003||fuel leak from rear of bomb carrier engine|
|September 2003||leak of coolant from bomb carrier radiator|
|October 2003||smoke after excessive use of brakes during descent|
|May 2004||bomb carrier brake not working|
|July 2004||bomb carrier axle brake running hot|
|December 2004||oil leak from engine on bomb carrier|
|January 2005||smoke issued from bomb carrier fuse box|
|July 2006||fault on quick release valve|
|September 2006||starter motor fault on bomb carrier|
|September 2006||gear fault on bomb carrier|
|September 2007||command vehicle lost communications|
|January 2008||escort vehicle brakes locked|
|April 2008||anti-nuclear protest|
|September 2008||escort vehicle brakes overheating|
|January 2009||bomb carrier fuse box failure|
|December 2009||convoy off route due to commander error|
|December 2009||escort vehicle transmission failure|
|July 2011||command vehicle fuel system failure|
|January 2012||fire tender brake fault|
|January 2012||escort vehicle gun port flap opened inadvertently|
|January 2012||command vehicle experienced reduced braking|
|March 2012||diversion due to low flying at MoD establishment|
|March 2012||load-securing system damaged during offload|
|June 2012||manhole cover collapsed under escort vehicle|
|September 2012||escort vehicle reported smoke and fumes in cab|
|May 2013||road traffic collision involving two convoy vehicles|
|May 2013||collision with a parked civilian vehicle|
|January 2014||collision with a car at an MoD base|
|January 2014||delay caused by slush and snow|
|July 2014||protestor glued to roof of bomb carrier|
|November 2014||bomb carrier breakdown|
|July 2015||two escort vehicles unserviceable after breakdowns|
|November 2015||dogs loose on the carriageway|
|January 2016||command vehicle clutch problem|
|May 2016||electrical equipment failure on support vehicle|
The incidents are all outlined in a ‘Nukes of Hazard’ report published today by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The report warns that a serious accident involving fires and explosions could spread radioactive contamination over cities.
The report also says that extreme accidents could cause a nuclear reaction to emit lethal radiation, known as an “inadvertent yield”. It quotes the MoD warning that a terrorist attack on a nuclear convoy could cause “considerable loss of life”.
The number of safety incidents reported by the convoy alarmed the SNP’s defence spokesperson, Brendan O’Hara MP. “This is utterly chilling,” he told The Ferret.
“One incident involving these deadly cargos is one more than is acceptable – but 43 in three years is plain shocking.”
The convoys were “terrifying” and had to stop, O’Hara said. “These figures illustrate very starkly that communities are potentially being put at risk because of breakdowns and safety concerns. People are being kept in the dark, and it’s imperative that communities know that they are safe.”
He added: “Trucks filled with nuclear material can be on the motorway, on main roads or in city centres without residents or businesses or schools or shops on the route ever knowing.”
One incident involving these deadly cargos is one more than is acceptable – but 43 in three years is plain shocking Brendan O'Hara MP
An opinion poll conducted by YouGov for ICAN found that 64 per cent of adults said they did not know that nuclear bomb convoys went through or past many towns and cities. Nearly half – 47 per cent – said they were concerned.
According to the Labour MSP Neil Findlay, any incident involving nuclear convoys was a cause for concern. “I want to see the world free of nuclear weapons but until we are we must ensure that these items of military hardware are stored and transported in complete safety. This doesn’t appear to have been the case over the last 16 years,” he said.
Nukewatch UK, a campaign group that monitors the convoys, warned that in complex operations like the transport of nuclear weapons it was impossible to avoid accidents. “The hazards to the public can only increase when these weapons are transported along busy roads and close to urban areas – as we know they are,” said the group’s Jane Tallents.
“However much we try, it’s not possible to eliminate the risks and the only safe option is to halt the transport of nuclear weapons around the country. That’s yet another good reason for scrapping Trident.”
The MoD argued that the transport of nuclear materials was carried out to the highest standard in accordance with stringent safety regulations. “All operational and engineering incidents are reported, however minor,” said an MoD spokesman.
“In over 50 years of transporting defence nuclear material in the UK, there has never been an incident that has posed any radiation hazard to the public or to the environment.”
Rob Edwards was commissioned to write the ‘Nukes of Hazard’ report on nuclear weapons convoys by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.