October 2003

MoD catalogues its nuclear blunders

Guardian Unlimited, October 13, 2003
By Rob Evans

Original address: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1061676,00.html

[Posted 14/10/2003]

Ombudsman forces disclosure of list of mishaps from 1960 to 1991 in which weapons were dropped or their carriers had road accidents.

British nuclear weapons have been repeatedly dropped, struck by other weapons, and on one occasion carried on a truck that slid down a hill and toppled over, the Ministry of Defence has admitted after decades of secrecy.

The department has been forced to publish a list of 20 accidents and mishaps with nuclear weapons between 1960 and 1991, following a critical verdict from the parliamentary ombudsman.

No incidents have been reported since then. The list shows that trucks carrying nuclear weapons on British roads overturned on two occasions, and cars crashed into two convoys.

Nuclear weapons were dropped or fell on four occasions, and other munitions struck the atomic weapons four times. Four of the incidents happened abroad, in Germany, Malta and near Hong Kong.

Sir Kevin Tebbit, the MoD's permanent secretary, has had to disclose the list following a six-year "open government" campaign by the Guardian. The MoD initially blocked the request submitted in 1997, prompting the newspaper to lodge a complaint with the ombudsman, Ann Abraham.

Finding the MoD guilty of maladministration, the ombudsman dismissed its objections and ruled that disclosing the information would not endanger the security of the nation. She also criticised the ministry for the "inordinate delay" in releasing the list.

One accident hushed up by the MoD was in 1960 in Lincolnshire. According to the MoD, "an RAF nuclear weapon load carrier, forming part of a convoy, experienced a brake failure on an incline and overturned". The MoD gives no other details, but insists "there was no damage to any nuclear weapon".

Three years later, on the border of Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, there was another "brake failure on a nuclear weapon load carrier". The MoD does not give further details, but again says no weapons were damaged. Another brake failure happened in June 1985 near Glasgow.

Since Britain started making nuclear weapons in the early 1950s, convoys have regularly transported missiles hundreds of miles on motorways and other roads from bases to the atomic weapons factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire.

These convoys continue today, as the warheads have a very short shelf-life and constantly have to be refurbished and rebuilt to keep them safe.

Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist who worked at Aldermaston in the 1950s, said: "To have three brake failures frankly surprises me. A well-maintained convoy should not have brake failures." He said that the designs of Britain's early nuclear weapons, from the 1950s and 1960s, were unsafe and primitive, and that the MoD was "lucky" to have got away with not having more serious accidents, including nuclear explosions.

He added: "The fact is that the early bombs were not safe until the safety features in the more modern weapons were installed. They were not safe [enough] to be subjected to severe shock."

The MoD insists the accidents never caused radiation leaks. "There has never been an occurrence involving a British nuclear weapon which represented a threat to public safety or to the safety of service personnel."

Shaun Gregory, a Bradford University academic who has studied the dangers of nuclear accidents, said that the MoD's descriptions of the incidents had the "appearance of being a sanitised version" of events and did not ring true. "Any type of complex system is bound to run into trouble," he said.

He believed that there was little chance of a nuclear detonation, but an accident could have caused a fire or explosion which could have showered radioactive debris around the immediate area. He pointed out that the US had released the documents and reports of accidents with their nuclear weapons under the country's freedom of information act. These reports had shown how military staff had panicked during those events.

There have been at least two accidents with US nuclear weapons on British soil, both at Lakenheath in Suffolk. In 1956, a bomber careered out of control and ploughed into a bomb dump housing three nuclear weapons, tearing it apart. The bomber exploded and threw burning fuel over all three nuclear weapons. One official US cable reported that it was a "miracle" that one bomb with "exposed detonators" did not explode.

In 1961, a warplane loaded with a nuclear bomb caught fire, leaving the weapon "scorched and blistered".

For decades, the MoD refused to disclose any information on nuclear accidents, as it did not want to confirm or deny presence of weapons at any particular time or place. But the ombudsman decided that national security could not be compromised, as the weapons in the accidents had been taken out of service.

She wrote : "It is therefore difficult to envisage the release of information about events that happened some time ago to weapons that no longer exist could cause harm if made more widely available."

Mr Barnaby said: "The intense secrecy was an absurdity. It does not affect national security. It is just an embarrassment which would make people more hostile to nuclear weapons."

The MoD's list is based on incomplete records. From military sources, the Guardian has learnt of three other mishaps. In 1988, a WE177 nuclear bomb was dented after it was dropped at RAF Marham, Norfolk. Another WE177 fell off a workstand in 1976 at RAF Honington, Suffolk, while being loaded on to a plane. In 1967, a Vulcan bomber carrying a nuclear weapon was struck by lightning at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.

Only seconds away from disaster

Wiltshire 1987 Truck with two 950lb WE177 n-weapons skidded and rolled on to side; second truck also slid off road. According to MoD, minor damage only. Armed police sealed off site from protestors

Malta 1974 Two torpedoes fell on to WE177 on board HMS Tiger. 'Superficial scratching' said MoD, but torpedo blast could have detonated explosive in n-weapon, scattering radioactivity

Lincolnshire 1960 N-weapon truck had 'brake failure and overturned'; similar failure in 1963

Germany 1974 and 1984 WE177 dropped while loading on plane at RAF Laarbruch in 1974; another WE177 dropped at RAF Bruggen in 1984 - reportedly caused base to shut for period

At sea 1974 and 1981 Parts of Polaris casing 'compressed' onto missiles on board subs. Design modified

Firth of Clyde 1973-87 Coulport arms depot: in 1973, Land Rover reversed into RAF convoy of Polaris warheads, 'minor damage' to truck; in 1977 Polaris missile dropped while lifted; MoD said it fell 'a few inches'; in 1987, missile hit trailer because of 'human error onpart of crane driver' and defective crane, according to MoD. After inquiry, 'substantial changes in management responsibilities, training and command and control'. On M8 near Glasgow in 1983, Polaris warheads convoy collided with car; in 1985 there was 'brake failure on carrier', according to MoD, and it bumped into one in front

M25 1991 RAF convoy had 'mechanical failure'; motorway was closed several hours while, it is thought, n-bomb was shifted from one truck to another

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