The nuclear secrets on our roads

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TWO MONTHS ago, an American transport plane crashed in East Anglia after colliding with a Cessna light aircraft. It was carrying nuclear weapons. What happened then remains a secret. Did the bombs explode? Did they leave the Broads irradiated, and the population exposed to possible cancer? Did the emergency services react efficiently?

This was actually a simulated scenario, part of the biggest exercise of its kind yet staged in the UK mainland. The Ministry of Defence yesterday refused to release any information on what happened.

CND claims that the exercise was a mess, that civil police who were first on the scene did not wear protective clothing and it took several hours for specialist Whitehall teams to arrive and start the clean-up.

The MoD's refusal to comment has helped to reopen the debate on the safety of nuclear-weapon transportation in Britain. The subsequent discovery that the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston has been using civilian cars, without escort, to carry nuclear materials around the country will also raise concern. The MoD seems to have kept the use of these vehicles from the Commons' defence select committee, the body which monitors its conduct.

Britain's nuclear deterrent is carried around by road through some of the most densely populated parts of the country. At least once a month, vehicles emerge from RAF Wittering near Peterborough to take Trident missiles from AWE Burghfield to Scotland or transport bombs between bases in East Anglia. The nuclear components for the weapons are made at AWE Aldermaston, but final assembly is at Burghfield. From there, the Trident warheads travel to RNAD Coulport in Scotland where they await deployment on submarines at Faslane.

In the past few months, several local councils on the route the weapons take to western Scotland have called for an immediate independent inquiry and an end to the convoys, amid concerns that they and emergency services could not cope with a disaster.

Last month, Helena Kennedy QC chaired an inquiry on behalf of Reading Borough Council into AWE Aldermaston and the movement of nuclear weapons. She castigated the MoD for its 'need to cover even its most mundane activities in a cloak of secrecy'.

Strathclyde council has also voiced concern about convoys passing through the centre of Glasgow. A spokesman said: 'If we had a major accident we could not cope with it. The guidelines issued by the Government suggest a 5km exclusion zone around the area of the accident. If this was in central Glasgow this would mean evacuating 32,000 people.'

The MoD dismisses such misgivings as 'political' criticisms by anti-nuclear campaigners. It has no legal responsibility to heed demands for an end to convoys, and it does not alert the authorities' emergency planning officers to the presence of convoys because their whereabouts are 'confidential'. However, the police are informed.

Last year, MoD guidelines on nuclear emergencies were issued to local authorities, but were dismissed as unworkable. They included: 'Go indoors and stay there. Do not try to collect children at school unless told to do so. The school authorities will look after them.'

The advice allows for the possibility that a weapon could leak radiation as the result of a road accident, but the MoD says the chance of an atomic explosion occurring is 'impossible'. This is despite an earlier US Congressional report advising that there was a remote chance of a detonation.

US advice to local emergency planners on nuclear accidents is much more explicit - and alarmist - than the British version. Where the MoD talks of 5km exclusion zones, the US refers to 130km.

'What we are saying is that a disaster cannot be ruled out,' said Di MacDonald of Nukewatch, a monitoring group.

'In a fire the casement could rupture and the plutonium might 'jet' and be dispersed.'

Transporter breakdowns are common on convoy journeys, and the Commons defence select committee, which published a critical report last month, revealed that there have been 21 breakdowns since 1992. As well as the possibility of terrorist attack, there is a risk that a transporter could go out of control while on the road.

Serious accidents, including transporter crashes, have occurred in the past 10 years. In a notorious incident in 1987, one transporter keeled over and was stuck in a ditch for 24 hours. In another case, a convoy lost its way in the one-way system in a small market town.

It is normally forbidden to carry weapons-grade plutonium side by side with high explosive on the public highway, but the MoD has waived this restriction for the warheads. The Health and Safety Executive has said it is satisfied there is no particular risk to the public, and it has cited International Atomic Energy Agency recommendations to justify its decision. However, the IAEA said that none of its regulations were applicable to military transport, which it was keen to discourage.

Frank Cook, Labour MP and member of the Commons defence committee, said yesterday: 'There is a genuine risk of something terrible happening. The only way to stop it happening is to stop transportation.'

The alternative to the roads is the sea. Originally, nuclear weapons were carried by ship from Portsmouth or Plymouth to Scotland, but by the early Eighties this had ceased.

Strathclyde council is insisting that the MoD consider sea transportation once more, to avoid major centres of population. The MoD says this would be too expensive. But if it changes its mind, it will face a new protest. The local media in Portsmouth and Plymouth, prompted by mounting public concern, have already begun campaigning to stop the missiles coming back to their ports.

(Photograph and map omitted)