Warhead convoys put millions at risk

IssueOctober - November 2016
News by Matt Hawkins

On 14 September, a convoy of 20 vehicles left the nuclear weapon maintenance plant AWE Burghfield in Berkshire, England, to begin its long journey up to Coulport in Scotland, the base of the UK’s Trident missile system. On the way, the convoy, carrying nuclear warhead components, would drive past cities, towns and villages, schools, hospitals and workplaces, and share the roads with other trucks and lorries, buses, bikes and cars.

It’s unlikely that people living in these communities would have been aware of the presence of these nuclear trucks. Just how at risk are they?

That’s a question that ICAN UK set out to answer in our new report, Nukes of Hazard: The Nuclear Bomb Convoys on Our Roads, written by the investigative journalist Rob Edwards. We’ve used freedom of information requests, modelling of potential convoy accidents, and existing research to build a portrait of what could happen should a convoy come to serious grief.

A hard rain’s a-gonna fall

We based our modelling on a bad-but-not-worst-case scenario: an accident serious enough to cause a leak of radiation but not an explosion. We wanted to create a picture anyone can imagine: one of the trucks is involved in a crash which causes a pile-up powerful enough to rip through the outer protection of the truck.

We conservatively assumed that the radiation would leak over a 10km radius. We found that in total there are 2.8 million people at risk within a 10km radius of the accident sites we modelled in Birmingham, Newcastle, Preston, Wetherby, and Glasgow. There are also 1,180 schools, 131 railway stations, 56 hospitals, 47 major roads, and 12 universities. Up and down the country hundreds more communities and millions more people are at risk should there be a crash.

Just before we went to print, the ministry of defence (MoD) responded to one of our freedom of information requests with an alarming update: between 2000 and 2016 there have been 180 safety incidents involving the nuclear convoys, ranging from overheating to brake failure, from smoke fumes to crashes.

Cuts to the MoD, the laying off of staff, the requirement for the convoys to travel without a significant break, and the growing number of cars on Britain’s roads are all increasing the risks.

Topics: Nuclear weapons