A serious road accident involving the nuclear bomb convoy in Glasgow could contaminate a large swathe of the city and put hundreds of thousands of people at risk, according to a new analysis.
Using US defence software, disarmament campaigners have mapped the impact of a major crash at the junction of the M8 and M74 near the city centre. Radioactive plutonium and uranium could leak from nuclear warheads and be blown up to 17 kilometres across East Dunbartonshire, they say.
The analysis assumes that a conventional explosion caused by the crash breaches warhead containment, as emergency exercises conducted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have envisaged. But the MoD insists that a radiation leak is not a “reasonably foreseeable accident scenario”.
The dangers of nuclear weapons convoys are due to be discussed at a public meeting in Glasgow on this evening (27 September). It has been organised by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND) as part of a ‘Nukes of Hazard’ campaign.
Large military convoys transport Trident nuclear warheads about six times a year between the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Long and the bomb factory at Burghfield in Berkshire. They often pass through or near Glasgow.
The most recent convoy was stopped by protestors near Stirling on 15 September. It was delayed by 20 minutes after a 78-year-old anti-nuclear activist, Brian Quail, wriggled under the wheels of a convoy vehicle.
The new analysis was conducted by SCND using ‘Hotspot’ software produced by the US government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Assuming the wind is blowing to the northeast, it shows levels of radioactivity spreading from a convoy accident in a cigar-shaped plume.
The centre of Glasgow around George Square would receive radiation doses above 30 millisieverts, which SCND says would increase cancer risks. Outside the city, radiation doses would be over three millisieverts, which could lead to people being told to stay indoors and restrictions on farms.
SCND secretary, Janet Fenton, warned that transporting nuclear weapons was alarmingly dangerous. “A serious convoy accident in Glasgow is a horrific prospect and an unacceptable and reckless approach to risk,” she said.
“A cloud of radioactive contamination could spread across the city and out into East Dunbartonshire – without the permission or knowledge of those affected.”
The SNP MP for Glasgow Central, Alison Thewliss, thought a convoy accident was “potentially devastating” and a “serious cause for concern.” She criticised Westminster for not informing the Scottish Government or local authorities of convoy movements.
“If the very worst were to happen it would be the Scottish Government, along with local authorities, who would step in and help with the immediate emergency response as well as the longer term outcomes.”
A report published last week by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) pointed out that more that three-quarters of a million people lived within ten kilometres of a potential convoy accident site on the M8 in Glasgow. Up to 265 schools, 59 railways stations, 19 hospitals could be disrupted, it claimed.
The Ferret also revealed that the nuclear convoy had reported 43 collisions, breakdowns, mechanical failures and other mishaps in the last three years. Incident logs released by the MoD under freedom of information law show how the convoy was often delayed or diverted by bad weather, accidents and protests.
ICAN’s UK coordinator, Rebecca Sharkey, praised those who protested against nuclear bomb convoys. “Our report shows that there is very little awareness among the general public that these convoys even exist,” she said.
“By persisting with the modernisation and transportation of its nuclear weapons, the UK is endangering both its own population and the rest of the world.”
Glasgow Green councillor Martha Wardrop argued that communities should not have to live with the constant fear of radioactive contamination. “The consequences of an accident would be devastating to the health of residents across Glasgow and West of Scotland,” she said.
The MoD stressed that weapons were robust and were transported in vehicles that provided substantial crash protection. The transports were carried out to the highest standard in accordance with stringent safety regulations, it said, and all incidents were reported, however minor.
“There is no reasonably foreseeable accident scenario that would result in a release of radioactive contamination into the environment,” added an MoD spokesman.
“In over 50 years of transporting defence nuclear material in the UK, there has never been an incident that has posed any radiation hazard to the public or to the environment.”
Read a related story about the risks of nuclear bomb convoys here.
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 25 September 2016.