Nuclear convoy collisions and breakdowns exposed

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”.

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 2002wheel of load carrier showed signs of overheating
August 2002engineering fault on convoy support vehicle
January 2003bomb carrier engine brake became inoperative
February 2003bomb carrier clutch became inoperative
May 2003bomb carrier engine overheating
May 2003fuel leak from rear of bomb carrier engine
September 2003leak of coolant from bomb carrier radiator
October 2003smoke after excessive use of brakes during descent
May 2004bomb carrier brake not working
July 2004bomb carrier axle brake running hot
December 2004oil leak from engine on bomb carrier
January 2005smoke issued from bomb carrier fuse box
July 2006fault on quick release valve
September 2006starter motor fault on bomb carrier
September 2006gear fault on bomb carrier
September 2007command vehicle lost communications
January 2008escort vehicle brakes locked
April 2008anti-nuclear protest
September 2008escort vehicle brakes overheating
January 2009bomb carrier fuse box failure
December 2009convoy off route due to commander error
December 2009escort vehicle transmission failure
July 2011command vehicle fuel system failure
January 2012fire tender brake fault
January 2012escort vehicle gun port flap opened inadvertently
January 2012command vehicle experienced reduced braking
March 2012diversion due to low flying at MoD establishment
March 2012load-securing system damaged during offload
June 2012manhole cover collapsed under escort vehicle
September 2012escort vehicle reported smoke and fumes in cab
May 2013road traffic collision involving two convoy vehicles
May 2013collision with a parked civilian vehicle
January 2014collision with a car at an MoD base
January 2014delay caused by slush and snow
July 2014protestor glued to roof of bomb carrier
November 2014bomb carrier breakdown
July 2015two escort vehicles unserviceable after breakdowns
November 2015dogs loose on the carriageway
January 2016command vehicle clutch problem
May 2016electrical equipment failure on support vehicle
source: Ministry of Defence reports

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.”

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.

Photo thanks to Nukewatch.

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