Nuclear missile error that could have ravaged Lincolnshire was kept secret

A FORMER RAF officer has described how an accident with a nuclear missile could have devastated much of Lincoln-shire and contaminated hundreds of square miles with radioactive materials.

A FORMER RAF officer has described how an accident with a nuclear missile could have devastated much of Lincoln-shire and contaminated hundreds of square miles with radioactive materials.

The mistake was made on 7 December 1960 at RAF Ludford Magna, 12 miles east of Lincoln. The station was equipped with three Thor long- range ballistic missiles, each armed with a one-megaton nuclear warhead, controlled by the US Air Force under so-called dual-key arrangements.

Details of the blunder have been revealed by Group Captain George Aylett, who was then the station commander. RAF technicians fuelling the missile allowed its liquid oxygen tank to empty on to the launch pad. The leak could have caused the combustion of any inflammable material in the area, leading todetonation of the rocket's fuel. "It could have created a terrible disaster," Group Captain Aylett told the BBC2 documentary programme Close Up North.

The station's "special safety" instructions have been released under the Public Records Act. They reveal that "there could be a local spread of radioactivity". According to Sean Gregory, a specialist on nuclear weapon accidents at Bradford University, the destruction of the warhead would have contaminated between 100 and 300 square miles.

After the fuel spill, firemen were called in. They described how the missile launch area had become enveloped in a cloud of evaporating fuel.

The US Air Force was aghast at the RAF team, and at the potential consequences of a nuclear weapon accident in Britain at the height of the Cold War. "An awful lot of people were moved on as the result of that incident," said Group Caption Aylett.

But details of the accident have never been officially admitted. Both American and British official lists of nuclear weapon accidents contain no reference to the event.

It is only one of a series of nuclear near-disasters in Britain, which former servicemen describe on tonight's programme. In one case, Britain's nuclear strike force was apparently sent to war. In another incident, the former navigator of a Valiant V-bomber describes how a British-made hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped at RAF Wittering, Cambridgeshire. The incident was witnessed by Squadron Leader Del Padbury.

No official inquiry was held. The Ministry of Defence claims that the bomb was a "practice" weapon, containing no nuclear parts or explosives. But this is contradicted by an entry in Wittering's station logbook. This says that "a 2,000lb nuclear weapon was accidentally jettisoned from the bomb bay."

And RAF officers have confirmed rumours that they could have overcome American dual-key control of nuclear weapons. "You could have got round [American control of the warhead] just as if you want to start a car without the ignition key," according to Squadron Leader Frank Leatherdale, a former Thor base commander. "It was dangerous, and it was frowned upon, but it was done."

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