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Playing With Fire - review of the Report

Playing with Fire

This is a new report by Peter Burt for the Nuclear Information Service ,published  February 2017 , discussing the accident record of the UK's nuclear weapons programme over its 65 year history. It looks across the full scope of the programme, describing the most significant incidents in detail.

One thing quickly emerges from  a reading of this  long and detailed report: Not only are we paying for the Nuclear weapons which most of us do not want, risks are being taken in our name, with our money. As it states, ‘the intention of this report is to press the alarm button’, which it does. The report gives a ghastly list of accidents which makes you feel that the British Nuclear bomb has led a charmed life, and that  if we have avoided Armageddon by the skin of our teeth it is only  by pure luck, over and over again.

Operation Relentless, the programme for keeping a British nuclear submarine at sea at all times could well be called so because it imposes relentless pressures on managers, military commanders, and politicians to maintain operation at all costs as a national imperative. This leads to a disregard for safety which could have it renamed Operation Reckless. 


Reading the report three main themes emerge 

•It is impossible to guard against completely unpredicted and unforeseeable chance accidents

•Operational imperatives consistently trump safety

•Government sources consistently underplayed the seriousness of accidents involving nuclear weapons and refrained for telling the whole story

This report not only exposes secrets and lies, but also tries to scotch erroneous rumours, for example, no ships carrying nuclear material sank in the Falklands and, as far as we know, nuclear weapons and military nuclear materials have never been lost or stolen on Britain.

The background for the accidents is that 

•The MOD nuclear bomb project was never run pats a safety regulator representing public interest. 

•The MOD definitions of ‘accident’ change, but the current equivalent is a ‘safety alert’  which is ‘ an abnormal event which poses a potential threat to, or causes serious concern for reactor plant, nuclear weapons , or special nuclear material safety’ 

•Incidents in the civil nuclear sector can be recoded using the International Nuclear and Radiological Event scale (INES) which could be adapted to military incidents. 

•The principal radiological hazard arising in an accident where a nuclear weapon is damaged would arise from the combustion of plutonium and uranium and their subsequent release into the environment as airborne particles. 

•The main production sites for the UKs nuclear weapons programme are at the Atomic Weapons Establishment’s (AWE) two sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield where nuclear weapons are designed, manufactured and maintained. Barrow-in-Furness builds the Royal Navy’s nuclear powered submarines; nuclear reactors for the subs are built at Raynesway in Derby; and some work is done at the ‘Vulcan’ Naval Reactor Test establishment at Dounreay.

•AWE was privatised from 1997 and for the first time required to operate under the same nuclear licensing arrangements and standards as the civil nuclear industry.

•An accident would have economic and political consequences, besides health and environmental ones, according to David Wray of the MOD, ‘The consequences of such a and incident ( road transport accident) are likely to be considerable loss of life and severe disruption both to the British people’s way of life and to  the UK’s ability to function effectively as a sovereign state.’

The report is packed with facts, some of which have made it into the mainstream media too, but here are a few more highlights.

Did you know?

•7 workers have died in industrial accidents at the Aldermaston nuclear weapons factory, and at least 9 have died as a result of suspected radiation contamination. 

•When Windscale caught fire it was involved in producing special nuclear materials urgently needed for Britain’s hydrogen bomb programme.

•Some British nuclear accidents have happened overseas in countries with the local governments were not notified of the accident, or in some cases, even informed that nuclear weapons were present in their country. 

•In 1978 staff refused to work in certain parts of the Establishment due to radiation safety issues.

•In 1989 flooding caused contamination at Aldermaston which was kept secret until 1993.

•AWE has been authorised to discharge groundwater contaminated with tritium via a pipeline into the River Thames at Pangbourne.

•In the late 50s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was worried that the Americans would refuse to co-operate with Britain if they knew the extent of the recklessness and short-cuts which had characterised the British nuclear weapons programme.

•Besides transporting Nuclear Weapons by road form Berkshire to Coulport, special nuclear materials – plutonium, tritium and highly enriched uranium and components fabricated from these materials are transported to and from the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

•In April 1973 an SSEB LandRover reversed into a RAF truck transporting Polaris warheads near Coulport. 

•The practice of ‘airbourne alert’ , ensuring that at all times nuclear armed B52 aircraft were in the air ready to launch an immediate strike on the Soviet Union , ceased as a result of accidents in 1968.

•Throughout  the 1980s Royal Navy ships routinely carried nuclear weapons, including on ‘goodwill tours’  and into war zones including the Falklands in 1982. This was concluded to ‘carry with it an unequalled potential for crisis and crisis escalation and the ‘ potential for nuclear weapons or reactors being damaged, destroyed or lost’. During this time the RN had a policy of ‘neither confirm or deny’ the presence of nuclear weapons. This was relaxed in 1993 when the RN stated that its surface warships no longer carried nuclear weapons.

•As a result of the practice of carrying nuclear weapons on navy ships during the Falklands war  65% of the RN's entire stockpile of nuclear depth bombs were being carried in the area on HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible.

•During the Falklands war  nuclear weapons on HMS Broadsword and HMS Brilliant were transferred at sea to HMS Hermes to avoid  breaching the Treaty Of Tlatelolco( responsible for establishing a Nuclear Weapons Free zone in  Latin America)

•The second Polaris submarine to be built ran aground just 30 minutes after it was launched.

•There is evidence that towards the end of the service life of the Resolution call submarines the operating difficulties were so great that a submarine was required to ‘sit’ at the bottom of the ocean without moving on patrol on at least one occasion.

•A leak at Dounreay, arising from faults in the design of a submarine reactor was concealed from the public, the Scottish government, and the Dounreay site stakeholders group for over 2 years.

•In 1999 protestors crossed Loch Goil in an inflatable boat, boarded the floating laboratory and remained on board for over 3 hours before the policeman, apparently alerted by a media enquiry, arrived to arrest them.

•Juliet MacBride’s regular incursions into Aldermaston Awe were so frequent that the AWE provided their employees with instructions on how to respond in they encountered her on the premises.

•In the late 1940s Mark 4 atomic bombs were considered too dangerous to be flown fully assembled over American soi but no safety restrictions were imposed on flights carrying them over the UK.

•In the late 50s Thor missiles could only be activated by two keys, used simultaneously. However all the locks had to be changed when it was discovered that one key opened both of them.

The report describes 110 accidents in the UK nuclear weapons programme during the past 65 years, and ends with some excellent recommendations, but it begins with something close to our heart, at Scottish CND, a dedication to John Ainslie. The report mentions his persistent and meticulous research and in my opinion this report is a worthy successor to Johns’ work. Besides the content it should be commended for being well laid out and illustrated; for clear explanations of complicated content and interesting, compellingly told case studies. 

Veronika Tudhope 

Read  the Full report