Alarm over 174 security breaches at Clyde nuclear bases

Two nuclear bomb bases on the Clyde recorded 174 security breaches over five years, according to information released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Between 2018 and 2022 there were 130 breaches reported at the Trident submarine base at Faslane, near Helensburgh, and a further 44 breaches at the nearby nuclear weapons store at Coulport.

The MoD has not given any details of the incidents, but suggested that some were “minor”. They could include lost identity cards, misplaced documents and data protection breaches, it said.

The MoD stressed that it investigated every incident “no matter how small” with the aim of continuously improving security.

Campaigners, however, warned there were “risks of major catastrophe” at Faslane and Coulport. They called on whoever wins the general election to “get to grips” with security problems.

The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all support the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. The Scottish National Party and the Greens oppose it.

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A freedom of information response released by the MoD in May revealed that the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport recorded the highest number of security breaches – 13 – in 2019. Since then, there were 11 in 2020, nine in 2021 and nine in 2022. 

Coulport is where around 200 of the UK’s arsenal of nuclear warheads are kept in underground bunkers. Spread across the slopes above Loch Long, the site is dotted with watchtowers and protected by a series of barbed wire fences.

The latest MoD release also confirmed a previous report that there were 60 security breaches at Faslane in 2022. Another report in 2022 said that there were 16 breaches at Faslane in 2021, and 18 in each of the previous three years.

Faslane, on the Gareloch, is the home port for the UK’s four Vanguard-class submarines that carry nuclear-armed Trident missiles. One submarine is meant to be continuously on patrol at sea, but in recent years the service has been stretched.

Security breaches at Coulport and Faslane 2018-22

Sources: Ministry of Defence, LBC and The Scottish Sun.

The numbers of security breaches in 2023 and so far in 2024 have not been published by the MoD. But it has previously released figures for nuclear safety incidents that have also plagued the Clyde bases.

The Ferret reported in April that Faslane and Coulport logged 843 “nuclear site events” from 2019 to April 2024. Twelve of them were classified by the MoD as having “actual or potential for radioactive release to the environment”.

We also revealed in August 2023 that the MoD’s Defence Nuclear Organisation, which oversees the UK nuclear weapons programme, had recorded 113 “security concerns” since 2017-18. Again, no details were given.

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The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament warned that security breaches should not be “shrugged off” as minor. “Faslane and Coulport combine nuclear bombs, nuclear reactors and missiles – radioactivity, explosives and highly flammable rocket fuel – always presenting potential targets and risks of major catastrophe,” said the campaign’s chair, Lynn Jamieson. 

“At these most dangerous places, regular breaches signal either a grossly-inappropriate casual culture or the impossibility of 100 per cent security. Incidents rising to 60, averaging more than one a week, is a warning and calls for public investigation.”

Jamieson also attacked the MoD failure to provide details of the breaches. “Secrecy cloaks the reality of the everyday risks in our own backyard,” she told The Ferret. 

“Secrecy is convenient for politicians who spout the myth that threatening to destroy half the planet with nuclear weapons keeps us safe.”

Some nuclear security breaches ‘serious’

The Nuclear Information Service, which researches and criticises nuclear weapons, argued that any security breaches were concerning. “If, as the MoD imply, some of these incidents were relatively minor, why have no further details been disclosed?” asked the service’s director, David Cullen.

“The obvious inference is that some of the incidents were much more serious. Whoever wins the election, I hope the incoming government will get to grips with this.”

The large increase in security breaches at Faslane between 2021 and 2022 was “especially worrying”, he said. A report by the London news broadcaster, LBC, in September 2023 suggested that this could be linked to Russian activity in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

According to the MoD, incidents “can include minor breaches”. They can also include “the mis-accounting of documentation, loss of identity cards, inadvertent use of personal electronic devices and breaches in general data protection,” it said.

A spokesperson for the Royal Navy added: “Security is of paramount importance and we investigate every incident, no matter how small, to ensure we learn from experience and continuously improve our security.”

Cover image thanks to Ministry of Defence

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