A series of shortfalls in Scotland’s emergency arrangements for coping with a nuclear bomb convoy crash have been exposed by a Scottish Government review.
Leaking radioactivity from an accident would put “strains” on the resources for monitoring the contamination of people, food and the environment, it says. Monitoring may be required “at scale” because of the large number of people involved.
The review reveals that the fire service hasn’t finalised its emergency procedures for convoy crashes, the police need to be better briefed and vetted, while the ambulance service is not told about convoy movements.
The emergency services have also failed to properly record the lessons they learn from emergency exercises, it adds.
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.
Though the Ministry of Defence attempts to keep them secret, the convoys are often photographed, filmed and followed on social media. They travel close to major centres of population such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham.
The Ferret revealed on 23 June 2019 that an emergency exercise in Scotland called Astral Climb in 2016 had suffered communication breakdowns that could have put people at risk.
A report by campaigners in August 2017 warned that Scotland was “wholly unprepared” to deal with an accident or an attack on a convoy. When the issue was raised in the Scottish Parliament in May 2018, Scottish ministers promised to ask the police and fire inspectorates to conduct a review.
The resulting “preparedness review” of the “road transportation of defence nuclear material in Scotland” was posted online on 28 June. It was compiled by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland, Her Majesty’s Fire Service Inspectorate in Scotland and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.
The review concluded that the emergency services were “well prepared” to cope with a bomb convoy crash. But it highlighted 14 “areas for improvement”, along with recommendations and commitments to change.
The responsibility for co-ordinating radiation monitoring after an accident rested with Public Health England (PHE), the review pointed out – and it had expressed concerns about its capabilities.
“PHE have recognised that a radiation emergency, potentially including one involving the transport of defence nuclear materials, would place strains on available resources to monitor radiation, as well as those to collect and analyse samples,” the review said.
“They are therefore working to improve arrangements for the co-ordination of these resources. Relevant agencies and other bodies in Scotland who would provide such resources should therefore work with PHE in this regard as required.”
The Scottish Ambulance Service warned that the demand for monitoring equipment after an accident may be great. “Such facilities may be required at scale in the event of an incident, given the potential for larger numbers of people from the surrounding area being concerned about radiological contamination,” the review said.
The Scottish Government’s food agency also had concerns. “Food Standards Scotland recognises that a nuclear emergency could place strain on existing resources, specifically in the area of scientific technical radiological capacity and expertise,” the review said.
It also noted that the government’s Marine Scotland agency needed to “clarify arrangements further in areas such as protocols for safe collection, storage and transport of samples”.
According to the review, the hazards from a bomb convoy crash come from the “explosive, radioactive and toxic materials” that are transported. “The explosive hazard is the same as that which is associated with any chemical high explosive,” it said.
“The main radioactive materials are plutonium and uranium. Plutonium and uranium are both toxic and radioactive. The convoy may also contain other toxic (but not radioactive) materials such as beryllium and lithium. Beyond the immediate hazard area, the potential dispersion of airborne plutonium particles represents the dominant radioactive hazard.”
The Scottish Government’s review listed five emergency procedures that have still to be “finalised” by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, including operational guidance and intelligence sharing. They should be completed “as a matter of priority”, the review concluded.
Police Scotland were criticised for only conducting a “verbal briefing” for officers prior to convoy movements. “There would be merit in considering a more formal process to provide a record of the information given to officers,” the review said.
“We found that Police Scotland uses appropriate measures to secure information but there was a lack of clarity regarding vetting and which staff and officers have access to sensitive information.”
The fire and police services were both upbraided for failing to record the lessons learned from emergency exercises such as Astral Climb in 2016. They were urged to introduce new systems to ensure that that improvements were made.
The Scottish Ambulance Service has asked to be informed in advance of nuclear transports, as the police and fire services are. “The Ministry of Defence (MoD) agrees to explore with Scottish Ambulance Service, the benefits and risks of sharing information regarding the time window in which the defence nuclear materials convoys will be present in Scotland,” the review said.
The Scottish Greens, who raised nuclear convoy safety at Holyrood, said that it was “simply not good enough” for the MoD to just explore letting the ambulance service know. “Our emergency services need adequate information and protection,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
“It is good to hear our services are collaborating to keep us safe while nuclear warheads travel through our streets. However, I’m not convinced it will provide the reassurance communities need.”
Ruskell criticised ministers for accepting the MoD’s assurance that the risk of a convoy accident was low. “The potential damage caused by an accident or terrorist attack would be absolutely devastating,” he said.
“These supposedly secret convoys are travelling right through the heart of our communities with weapons of mass destruction. An accident could spread plutonium and other toxic materials over at least five kilometres.”
The campaign group that first raised the alarm, Nukewatch, pointed out that procedures wouldn’t have been tightened if concerns hadn’t been raised. “There are however a number of critical flaws in the review,” said the group’s Jane Tallents.
“The agencies concerned have been all too ready to accept without due diligence statements from the UK Ministry of Defence, without engaging with other recognised expertise, as we had recommended. This is especially true on the question of risk assessment.”
She argued that the potentially severe consequences of an accident had been ignored. “The review also fails to register adequately the unique hazards posed by the transport, and relies too heavily on generic emergency responses,” she added.
“Members of the public who are aware of the convoys need practical information about what to do in the case of an actual accident to keep them and their families safe. This review does not give this information or indicate where it might be found or accessed.”
Tallents accused ministers of giving a “false impression” that all was well. “The Scottish Government has a prime responsibility for the safety of citizens and must recognise that this case is far from closed.”
The minister for community safety, Ash Denham, said: “I believe the recommendations and suggestions that are included in the report will reassure parliament and our communities that our responder agencies are well prepared and the findings of this report will further enhance preparedness, so that Scotland is indeed ready.”
Photo thanks to Nukewatch.