UK Government plan to give armed nuclear police more powers raises ‘profound concerns’

A UK Government plan to give an armed police force called the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC) greater powers has raised “profound concerns” and been described as “deeply worrying”.

The CNC is a specialist force tasked with protecting civil nuclear sites in Scotland, England and Wales and nuclear materials in transit both in the UK and internationally. 

Counter-terrorism is a major part of its policing and the force employs 1,500 police officers. The CNC guards nuclear sites at Torness, Hunterston and Dounreay in Scotland, among other places across the UK.

It’s remit is set out in the Energy Act 2004 but the UK Government has just held a consultation seeking views on a plan to expand and diversify the force’s role.

Anti-nuclear groups have voiced fears over the proposal, however, arguing that the CNC’s remit should be limited to civil nuclear sites. The Scottish Greens said that centralised control over an armed police force with new powers would be a “very concerning development”.

The CNC said in reply it plays an “important national counter-terrorist role” and provides armed support to territorial police forces across the UK. 

CNC officers are sworn constables, trained to the same standards as armed police officers. The force is governed by the Civil Nuclear Police Authority (CNPA).

The UK Government’s plan would enable the CNC to “provide a wider range of policing services beyond the civil nuclear sector” and “provide support more easily to other police forces”.

The consultation paper said: “In light of the evolving national security and energy landscape, we want to ensure that we are making best use of our resources to protect the UK’s critical national infrastructure. This will ensure that, should a need arise in the future, the constabulary can utilise their expertise in deterrence and armed response to support other critical infrastructure sites, as well as assist other police forces in an emergency.

“This proposal would also align with the force’s strategic ambition as set out in their 2020 – 2023 strategy, which seeks to ensure the constabulary can effectively adapt to the changing UK nuclear and risk landscape.”

It has already given wide ranging new powers and immunities to police officers, including the ability to break up peaceful protest. Centralised control over an armed police force with new powers would be a very concerning development in this context.

Maggie Chapman, Scottish Greens MSP

Those responding to the consultation included the UK and Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) which submitted a joint response with anti-nuclear groups – Blackwater Against New Nuclear Group, Together Against Sizewell C, CADNO, People Against Wylfa B, Stop Hinkley and Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates.

The NFLA argued that the CNC’s powers should be “limited to civil nuclear sites, as its title implies”. Any expansion to other roles and duties for the CNC, they argued, would “represent an expansion of nuclear police at expense of the civil police force”.

Councillor David Blackburn, NFLA steering committee chair, said: “NFLA has joined with these six other campaigning groups to raise its profound concerns that an expansion of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and an increase in its powers is moving it in the wrong direction. What is required rather is concerted efforts to reduce the risks of the UK’s nuclear legacy and to avoid developing new nuclear reactor sites.”

He argued that by making nuclear sites safer “there will become less of a need for an armed police force”.

“The concerning wider push for new laws which could reduce peaceful protest also greatly concerns us,” Blackburn said. “The proposals in this consultation move the CNC further into being an extensively armed police force, when we should instead be looking at ways to have a democratically controlled and accountable police force protecting the public in a measured way.”

Scottish Greens justice spokesperson Maggie Chapman MSP also expressed concern. She accused the UK Government of being an “authoritarian government” that is aiming to “use police to achieve its goal of cutting our freedoms”.

She added: “It has already given wide ranging new powers and immunities to police officers, including the ability to break up peaceful protest. Centralised control over an armed police force with new powers would be a very concerning development in this context. The best way to make nuclear power stations safer is to decommission them and provide a just transition for their workforce and towards clean energy.”

David Mackenzie, assistant secretary at Scottish CND, said any extension of police powers “must be treated with suspicion and exacting scrutiny”. He added: “In Scotland we have already seen problems arising from the 2001 extension of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence Police, which has led to difficulties around the policing of protest at the Faslane/Coulport nuclear weapon complex. 

“Policing of any sort must be as locally accountable as possible and any Civil Nuclear Constabulary role extension will degrade that principle. Police Scotland – unlike the MDP and CNC – is accountable to Scotland’s people and parliament and holds a key role for civil security and emergency response under the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004. The proposed extension of the CNC role would be an additional threat to this aspect of devolution.”

A spokesman for the CNC said it plays an “important national counter-terrorist role” and is a “key part of the national armed policing reserve”, providing armed support to territorial police forces across the UK. “CNC officers assist colleagues in other police forces on a regular basis in helping to keep local communities safe,” he added. 

“The consultation sought views on whether the CNC’s remit should be expanded to enable it to provide more support to other police forces, not to increase its remit at the expense of other police forces. The HMG consultation outlines that the CNC will not undertake any tasks which undermine or distract it from its core mission of keeping nuclear material and civil nuclear sites secure.”

The CNC already has a collaboration agreement in place with Police Scotland which says it can offer support in the event of an “Operation Temperer or Operation Plato scenario”. The former refers to a “major incident” when CNC could be deployed to “any force area”. The latter would be to provide support “in the event of a marauding terrorist attack, where there is a threat to life or risk of serious injury or to undertake joint patrolling”.

Both Police Scotland and the Scottish Government declined to comment.

Photo Credit: iStock/BrianAJackson

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