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Nuclear Warheads (Transportation)

Volume 598: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of transportation of nuclear warheads.

I thank the Minister for being here, and I hope that she can answer some of my questions about the transportation of nuclear warheads. It may come as a shock to many, but nuclear weapons are regularly driven past the homes of millions of people as they snake their way across Britain. Nuclear warheads were transported through my constituency at least three times in the last 18 months: in January and July 2014, and in January 2015. They were moved in large convoys of more than 20 vehicles on the M74 through Rutherglen and across the centre of the city of Glasgow.

On each occasion, they were travelling around midnight. Driving in the dark involves particular risks; the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has pointed out that drivers are far more likely to fall asleep at the wheel at night. Although only a quarter of all journeys take place between 7 pm and 8 am, 40% of all injuries sustained in accidents occur during this time period.

For several years, the convoys avoided the centre of Glasgow and skirted around the city. Now that restriction has been lifted, and they travel openly on the M74 and M8 through the heart of Scotland’s largest city. Until 2005, nuclear convoys took their time on the long journey from Berkshire to Coulport. Each trip took three days, with two overnight stops. Now the convoys’ journey is continuous, with a crew change halfway and no overnight stops. That means longer stretches on the road, driving at night, driving through urban areas and driving for longer, which all make the dangers of an accident even greater than in the past.

I am aware that the Ministry of Defence will be able to cite numerous safety procedures that are adhered to. I am also aware that the MOD carries out regular safety exercises and will consider its emergency plans to be robustly tested. But accidents can and do happen. In January 1987, in the county of Wiltshire, two nuclear warhead carriers, each transporting two nuclear warheads, came off the road after sliding on ice. One of the carriers suffered damage after rolling on its side. Fortunately, the containerised weapons were not damaged in the incident, but it took 18 hours to recover the damaged vehicle.

The MOD has failed to learn lessons from that accident. It continues to move nuclear weapons in the middle of winter, in icy conditions. At 11 pm on 11 January this year, a convoy drove past a sign on the M74 at Hamilton that said “Winter weather, take care”. It then went through my constituency, across Glasgow and over the Erskine bridge, 45 metres above the River Clyde.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no better example of the MOD’s blatant disregard for public safety in transporting nuclear warheads than when that convoy crossed the Erskine bridge in my constituency? The Erskine bridge, high above the Clyde, had been subjected to gusts of nearly 100 mph, and high-sided vehicles had been advised not to use the bridge. I cannot imagine a more ridiculous decision, made solely for convenience rather than safety. It is a completely wrong-headed approach to dealing with such a cargo.

I concur with my hon. Friend. The convoy proceeded despite the high wind warnings flashing on approaches to the bridge. For several days the Met Office had been issuing warnings across the country of high winds or snow. It would not have been possible for the convoy to complete its journey that week without driving at some point through an area where there had been an extreme weather warning.

In addition to the accident in Wiltshire, there have been other accidents: warhead transporters have crashed into each other, a nuclear lorry has been involved in a fatal head-on collision and a convoy has been stranded for hours following a major breakdown. In August 2014, the Sunday Herald newspaper reported that more than 70 safety lapses had occurred on nuclear convoys in the five-and-a-half-year period ending in December 2012. Like many others, I was shocked to learn that such safety incidents have occurred more than once a month on average. In 2012 alone, 23 incidents happened, raising fears that the safety of nuclear convoys might be deteriorating.

In 2005, the same newspaper also revealed an internal MOD report warning that nuclear warheads could accidentally explode if involved in a major crash, because a bomb’s key safety feature could be disabled, leading to what the MOD terms an “inadvertent yield”. That is a rather abstract way of saying that a burst of incredibly lethal radiation would be unleashed. The consequences of an accident could be catastrophic. If there were a major fire or explosion, lethal plutonium would be scattered downwind. Plutonium-241 has a half-life of 24,000 years and is difficult to detect. An accident in my constituency could leave it and neighbouring constituencies a wasteland.

Now it looks as if more convoys than ever will be travelling to and from Scotland. The MOD has a plan to overhaul and upgrade the entire stockpile of Trident nuclear warheads, the Mk4A refurbishment project. Successive Ministers have been coy about telling Parliament about those upgrades. Surely taking all the warheads down to Berkshire and then back to Scotland will mean that we can look forward to an increase in the frequency and size of convoys over the next few years.

My hon. Friend mentions convoys. Convoys include both the materials themselves and vehicles meant to deal with accidents when they happen. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the Minister share my concerns that in my constituency in 2007, the convoy vehicles got separated and lost in foggy weather; it took many hours for them to get back together, during which time anything could have happen and they would not have been able to respond.

I agree with my hon. Friend. In the longer term, this Government want to build a replacement for Trident and to keep nuclear weapons on the Clyde for at least another 50 years. It is being seriously discussed that those convoys will continue through the heart of Scotland’s largest city for the next half-century.

The convoys travel across Britain. The MOD’s own publication “Local authority and emergency services information” lists 85 English, 13 Welsh and 21 Scottish local authorities through which the convoys might travel. Those 21 alone account for about two-thirds of all Scottish local authorities. The convoys pass through many towns and cities, including Oxford, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh and Stirling, but the most dangerous route that they take is through the middle of Glasgow. How would Members feel if those weapons of mass destruction were driving down Whitehall? That is the threat that the citizens of the Greater Glasgow area face on a regular basis.

In addition to moving whole nuclear weapons, the MOD also regularly transports radioactive components of nuclear weapons by road in specially-built high-security vehicles. Those vehicles entered service in 1991 and were due to be retired in 2003, but the date was put back to 2009, then to 2010 and then to 2014. The delay has meant that the MOD is using unreliable vehicles to move parts of nuclear weapons. The trucks have suffered a series of breakdowns and faults. Fred Dawson, former head of radiation protection at the MOD, said of the situation:

“This does little to instil a sense of confidence in the safety of MOD’s nuclear activities. One hopes that the MOD has RAC or AA home recovery cover on all its vehicles.”

The public found out about the nuclear convoys as a result of the work of campaigners in Nukewatch, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Scottish CND and Faslane Peace Camp, which have shown great commitment over many years in shining a light on those deadly cargos.

Today we live in a new world of social media. Eight weeks ago, several members of the public were horrified when they spotted the vehicles driving across Scotland. They took to Twitter to pass on to the world what they were seeing. The MOD is deluding itself if it thinks it can keep secret 20-vehicle nuclear convoys travelling on our main roads; they are well documented, with organisations such as Nukewatch tracking and recording them. Given that the convoys are so easily recognisable, they are a target. Road safety is not the only risk. Nuclear weapons cannot deter terrorism; instead, they pose a potential threat from terrorism.

In May, the people of Scotland selected 59 MPs; 57 made it clear in their campaigns that they opposed Trident. That decision should be respected. Continuing to transport nuclear weapons across Scotland is an insult to the people who live there. There is no safe way to move nuclear warheads. As long as there are nuclear convoys, there will be an unacceptable risk of a release of lethal radiation, and calling it an “inadvertent yield” makes it no more acceptable or less dangerous. The safest way forward is to scrap Trident and put an end to nuclear convoys.

The thought of nuclear weapons, which are designed to flatten cities, travelling close to our homes in the early hours of the morning is enough to give anyone nightmares. Parents should be able to put their children to bed at night without worrying about the risk of a nuclear accident. It is time to remove that danger and let us live in peace. I have questions for the Minister, which I hope she can answer at the end of the debate, and I will then pass over to my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), who wishes to make a few comments.

Until 2005, MOD rules stated that nuclear weapon convoys should not travel in the hours of darkness. Can the Minister explain why that restriction was imposed and why it has been lifted? Between July 2007 and December 2012, there were 70 safety lapses on nuclear convoys. The highest number—23—was logged in 2012. To what extent have departmental spending cuts affected the apparent rise in safety incidents? What steps have been taken since 2005 to ensure that bomb safety features are not compromised in the event of a crash and how has the risk of an inadvertent yield been lessened?

Order. The rules of the House state that if an hon. Member wishes to speak, she must have the permission of the mover of the motion—I assume the hon. Lady does—and of the Minister.

Thank you, Sir Edward. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and the Minister.

My hon. Friend has made many important points this morning. Like her, I have substantial concerns about the transportation of nuclear weapons around the UK. Weapons of mass destruction have absolutely no place on our busy roads; in fact, they should have no place in our country at all. Weapons of mass destruction are wrong—morally, on safety grounds, on defence grounds and financially, too. The quoted cost of replacing Trident—£100 billion—is so big as to be almost beyond understanding. The Greek debt crisis, which is causing such concern, relates to figures of around £300 billion, so replacing Trident equates to a full third of Greek debt—an astonishing sum. Yet nuclear convoys continue to travel thousands of miles every year.

The journey from Aldermaston in the south of England to Coulport on the west coast of Scotland is a long one. Obviously, it is not clear exactly what routes are used, and I understand the reasons for that. What is very clear, however, is that, according to the “Local Authority and Emergency Services Information” document to which my hon. Friend referred, the Ministry of Defence has the ability to transport nuclear weapons all across the country. In fact, as she mentioned, it is expressly permitted to do so in 123 local authority areas in the UK—a huge swathe of the country, stretching from Exeter to Liverpool and Powys to Highland, and of course, many constituencies in Scotland, including my own constituency of East Renfrewshire. Transport through other areas is not ruled out if required. In reality, few areas of the UK have no likelihood of nuclear weapons being transported through them. I suggest that that is not widely known and that any community would feel real concern if convoys of nuclear warheads were driving down its roads.

The convoys drive on many of our busiest motorways, as well as major and minor roads. They travel alongside families going on holiday, people going to work and HGV drivers taking their loads around the UK. They also share the roads with other dangerous vehicles, such as fuel tankers. One of the worst types of accident that could happen is a collision between a tanker and a lorry carrying Trident nuclear weapons. The intense heat that would follow a fuel fire could engulf a nuclear warhead. The smoke drifting downwind would be contaminated with lethal plutonium. A severe fire could also cause the high explosive in the weapon to detonate. Although a nuclear explosion is unlikely, a conventional explosion in a Trident warhead would still have a devastating effect, dispersing plutonium for miles around.

As we heard, the MOD admitted that between July 2007 and December 2012 there were 70 incidents on nuclear weapon convoys: 56 engineering incidents and 14 operational incidents. Some related to support vehicles, but such incidents can still affect the whole convoy and its safety. In July 2011, a command vehicle suffered a dramatic loss of power and the whole convoy was left on the hard shoulder of the M6. Two lanes of the motorway were coned off and nuclear weapons were left sitting there. In July 2010, the convoy commander got lost and took a 45-minute diversion off the planned route. In March 2012, a convoy was diverted because of low-flying aircraft from an MOD establishment; what would happen if a low-flying fast jet collided with a lorry containing Trident nuclear warheads does not bear thinking about. The force of the impact would mean that there would be little left of the truck or its nuclear contents. Many of the 70 incidents might be dismissed as minor, but many had the potential to lead to much more serious situations.

The kind of threats that those in favour of Trident suggest it defends us against are not the threats that we are seeing manifest themselves across the world. None of us needs to be reminded about the terrible loss of life suffered as a result of terrorist attacks. Trident is not a deterrent against that real and present danger to our communities. Terrorists are a real danger to the safety of our Trident convoys. The only way to eliminate that threat is not to have Trident travelling on our roads at all.

We cannot afford to continue with more of these deadly cargos for another 50 years in the blind hope that a catastrophe will not happen. I call on the Minister and the Government to recognise the very significant dangers and to act decisively to bring them to an end. Like my hon. Friend, I would like the Minister to allow us to hear for the first time about the Mk4A project. What does it involve? How much will it cost? What impact will it have on the frequency of nuclear convoys? The truck cargo heavy duty Mk3 lorries that currently move nuclear weapons are due to be retired in 2025. It would be useful to know what provision has been made for a new fleet of lorries in the plans for Trident replacement, and at what cost.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this important debate and on her appointment to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. Nuclear warhead transportation is clearly of concern to her and her constituents. It should be noted that it and related issues are of concern to people across the country, including those in areas such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady said and I will address her points in turn. She will appreciate that I am limited in what I can say by security considerations, but I will try to give her the fullest answers possible. I start by reassuring her over the issues of cost that she raised. We are committed to all aspects of the deterrent and its security and safety. That has been the Government’s policy and it will continue to be. She will know that it was one of the red lines in our manifesto and is one of our red lines as we go into the strategic defence and security review.

The protection and defence of the United Kingdom is the primary responsibility of Government. In a world becoming more uncertain, as seen by the recent actions of a resurgent Russia, the Government are committed to maintaining the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent to provide the ultimate guarantee of our national security. In recent years we have reduced our stockpile of warheads and the number of warheads on our submarines. The ratio of our warheads to Russia’s is roughly one to 40. I hope that indicates to the hon. Lady the scale of what we face and the fact that Trident is a deterrent.

I thank the Minister for her answers so far. As SNP Members, we will admit that we do not want any nuclear weapons, and her comparison between the UK and Russia does not sit well with us. We would like to see the deterrent abolished completely. If we use nuclear weapons, where would that leave the UK? There would be no UK; there would be obliteration. What are her comments on that?

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s intervention, because although the bulk of my remarks will focus on the safety and transportation concerns she has expressed—I take her concerns at face value—at the heart of the debate is her and her party’s position on nuclear weapons. Of course we never want to use such weapons. However, as a Defence Minister who passionately believes that there would be dread consequences for the hon. Lady’s constituents and the whole UK if we did not have a deterrent, I believe it is absolutely fundamental that we retain that deterrent and say to those who would do us harm that there would be consequences if they used such dread weapons against us. I am happy to debate that point with the hon. Lady and her colleagues at any time; it is incredibly important and at the heart of what the debate is about. I will take at face value her concerns about the transportation of warheads, so I will address the bulk of my remarks to those points.

The specialist defence sites involved in delivering our nuclear weapons programme are based at Clyde, at Coulport and at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire. As such, it is necessary to transport nuclear defence material, including warheads, between those sites, although the movement of such material is kept to the minimum necessary to meet operational requirements in support of the UK’s strategic deterrent programme. It is an important principle of nuclear warhead safety that warheads should not be moved unless it is necessary.

I make it absolutely clear that the safety of the general public and the security of nuclear weapons convoys are our first priority at all times. Safety is paramount during the transportation of defence material, and all appropriate measures are taken to ensure that such weapon convoys can operate safely. Our safety record is excellent. In more than 50 years of transporting such material by road in the UK, there has never been an incident that has presented any risk to the public or the environment. A stringent safety reporting system is in place so that all incidents, however minor, are recorded and assessed for possible improvements to future operations.

The hon. Lady and her colleague referred to the log and expressed concerns, particularly about transportation during severe weather. As Members would expect, I have been through the log. On the Erskine bridge incident, the authorities were consulted. In any scenario where there are adverse weather conditions, Traffic Scotland and the police in Scotland are consulted. The convoy was not crossing the bridge until the weather had moved on. That is recorded.

Concerns have previously been expressed about convoys travelling through residential and urban areas. While the House would not expect me to discuss the specific details of routes for obvious security reasons, I assure Members that the routes are carefully selected as part of a rigorous risk assessment process and are regularly reassessed for their continued suitability. The transportation of nuclear and other hazardous materials is governed by international and national regulations, including the Carriage of Dangerous Goods and Use of Transportable Pressure Equipment Regulations 2009, as amended in 2013. Although there are exemptions for certain defence-related activities, Government policy is to comply with the principles of those exemptions.

The safety of nuclear convoy operations is carefully considered at all stages of the transportation process. Operational planning always takes into account such factors as road and weather conditions, and we consult with all relevant local agencies before undertaking a convoy move. Contingencies are planned for. The convoy is operated by a highly trained crew, consisting of a first-aid team, firefighters, mechanics and others to enable roadside repairs and personnel equipped to monitor for radiological hazards.

Members will be aware that the weapon is by its very nature an extremely robust device, designed to withstand launch and re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. It is transported in a benign configuration and secured in a custom-designed container that is tested in accordance with International Atomic Energy Agency standards to protect against a range of scenarios, including impact on a motorway at speed, a drop from height and a fuel fire, among others.

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will make a little progress. The vehicle that carries the container is custom-designed to provide robust crash protection, even in the event of a severe road accident. We have invested in our vehicle fleet and completed a significant upgrade programme in 2014.

Another issue that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned was the threat of terrorism with the transportation of nuclear materials. The risks associated with terrorist attack are mitigated by a range of counter-measures, including the vehicle itself, specific warhead protection measures, intelligence, monitoring and armed escort, which includes the Ministry of Defence police. Although the operational details of those counter-measures are understandably classified, Members can be reassured that we have the capabilities to deal with any such threats. Our security arrangements are kept under review, frequently tested and subject to formal inspections to ensure that they meet the required standards.

The limited movement of nuclear defence material together with inherent safety and security features and procedures mean that the probability of an accident leading to a release of radiation is extremely low. Nevertheless, as part of our rigorous approach to safety we maintain wider arrangements to respond to any incident, no matter how unlikely; that includes the Nuclear Emergency Organisation and the necessary contingency plans to deal with any accident. Under the auspices of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator and with the participation of the emergency services and local authorities, we also carry out regular exercises to rigorously test the continued effectiveness of our response.

Does the Minister not accept that that will be cold comfort to our constituents, given that it would take a minimum of four hours for those emergency activities to manifest themselves in our constituencies should an incident occur?

The hon. Lady is not correct. The nature of the convoy means that those necessary responses are built in. Any reaction that would need to go beyond that is rigorously tested and speedy.

I understand that this is not the first SNP debate that focuses on safety concerns. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West will know from freedom of information material that the incidents she referred to are very low-level and include putting the wrong fuel into a support vehicle. They have not in any way threatened the safety or security of the material in transit. The level of concern that the hon. Lady expresses is disproportionate to the incidents—I think that comes down to her party’s objection to the deterrent full stop.

I hope that the hon. Lady’s party will focus on that issue. I would be happy to engage in the debate because I passionately believe that we need the deterrent. Focusing disproportionately on safety—the incidents are in the public domain, so I can clearly show what they were, how meticulously they were recorded and the “lessons learned” programme that followed—does those who support Operation Relentless a grave disservice. These are incredible men and women who, whether they are on the submarines or part of the support and logistics operation, do an incredible job. One thing that I object to about the hon. Lady’s line of argument is that it does those people a disservice. If the issue is whether we should have nuclear weapons, I hope the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West will focus on that.

I will have to draw my remarks to a conclusion, for the reasons that you set out at the beginning, Sir Edward.

I think I will close on this: I am happy to hear any suggestions that SNP Members have about how safety can be improved and any other practical concerns, but I am not sure what they are suggesting. Are they suggesting that we move part of the operation elsewhere? I am not sure, but I would be happy to hear what they have to say.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.