Playing With Fire: Nuclear Weapons Incidents and Accidents in the United Kingdom

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NIS have released a report discussing the accident record of the UK's nuclear weapons programme over its 65 year history, looking across the full scope of the programme and describing the most significant incidents in detail.

The report describes 110 accidents, near misses, and dangerous occurrences that have occurred over the 65 year history of the UK's nuclear weapons programme, comprising of:

  • 14 serious accidents related to the production and manufacturing of nuclear weapons, including fires, fatal explosions, and floods.

  • 22 incidents that have taken place during the road transport of nuclear weapons, including vehicles overturning, road traffic accidents, and breakdowns.

  • 8 incidents which occurred during the storage and handling of nuclear weapons, including instances when nuclear weapons have been dropped.

  • 45 accidents that have happened to nuclear capable submarines, ships, and aircraft, including collisions, fires at sea, and lightning strikes. 24 of these accidents involved nuclear-armed submarines.

  • 21 security-related incidents, including cases of unauthorised access to secure areas and unauthorised release of sensitive information.

  • In addition, there have been 17 incidents involving US visiting forces and nuclear weapons in the UK and its coastal waters.

These figures include 27 fires and eight explosions. Seven workers have died in industrial accidents at the Aldermaston nuclear weapons factory, and at least nine have died as a result of suspected radiation contamination. A further 100 are estimated to have died from cancers caused by the 1957 fire at the Windscale reactor which was producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

We are certain that this represents the tip of the iceberg. The MoD has acknowledged 180 engineering and operational incidents that occurred during the road transport of nuclear weapons over the period 2000 – 2016 alone. Hundreds of accidents have been recorded as taking place at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, where the UK's nuclear weapons are designed and built. Thousands of cyber attacks are launched against the Ministry of Defence and its contractors every day. The majority of these incidents are insignificant, but had events played out differently their impact may in some cases have been much greater.

Perhaps understandably, the Ministry of Defence has never been keen to talk about the accidents and mishaps that have afflicted its nuclear operations. But we believe it should have been more forthright than it has been – and more frank too. It was not until 1992 that the MoD acknowledged that “some twenty” accidents and incidents involving nuclear weapons had occurred since 1960 following a review of the safety of nuclear weapons undertaken by Sir Ronald Oxburgh, its Chief Scientific Adviser. Only in 2003 did MoD publish a list giving more details – and then only because it was forced to as the result of a six year campaign by the Guardian newspaper.

The 27 incidents identified in the 2003 list are far from a full list of all the accidents which have happened involving British nuclear weapons. This report has been prepared from official records of accidents involving nuclear weapons, including the Oxburgh report and the 2003 list, supplemented by information from Parliamentary questions and more detailed accident investigation reports, in many cases obtained using the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Where available we have also drawn on contemporary news reports and the work of other researchers, and accounts from witnesses and whistleblowers.

Given the nature of nuclear weapons, the risks that they pose to public safety are substantially greater than those posed by conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons contain not only radioactive materials, but also high explosives and toxic chemicals. 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 impacts of such an accident are difficult to quantify, but they would be severe socially, economically, and politically.

This report aims to take a holistic approach to nuclear weapons accidents and examines all the stages in the operational life cycle of a nuclear weapon, documenting mishaps that have occurred during the manufacture of nuclear weapons, their transport between locations, storage and handling, and their deployment on submarines, ships, or aircraft. We also look at incidents where the security of nuclear weapons has been compromised, and briefly examine the nuclear accident record of United States visiting forces based in Britain. Seven detailed case studies are given to illustrate each section of the report:

  • The 1957 Windscale fire - the UK's most serious nuclear accident to date, which happened because of short-cuts taken as Britain raced to produce military nuclear materials for its hydrogen bomb programme.

  • An accident in 1987 when a truck carrying two nuclear weapons skidded and overturned on an icy road in Wiltshire.

  • An incident which took place at RAF Bruggen in Germany in 1984 when a container containing a nuclear bomb slid off a trailer because personnel had ignored procedures for securing the container to the trailer.

  • The story of why nuclear weapons were taken to the Falklands Islands, despite the risks involved, by the Task Force which set out to recapture the Islands from Argentina in 1982.

  • Details of the underwater collision which took place in the Atlantic Ocean between a British and a French submarine, each nuclear armed, in 2009.

  • One of the most serious security breaches in the history of the UK's nuclear weapons programme, when three peace campaigners managed to break into the control room of a Polaris submarine in 1988.

  • A Cold War air crash which took place at RAF Lakenheath in 1956 when a US Air Force bomber collided with a storage igloo containing three nuclear bombs.

Although this report is not a rigorous quantitative analysis of the accidents which have befallen the UK's nuclear weapons, it is possible to draw some general conclusions from the study. They may seem obvious to many, but they nevertheless deserve to be clearly stated and presented.

  • The risk of failures and accidents increases when equipment reaches the end of its operating life – be it a submarine, truck, nuclear processing facility, or merely a length of pipework.

  • Risks also increase when equipment is in short supply and is overused.

  • Accidents are more likely to occur when operations are hurried or are conducted under pressure.

  • Workers sometimes may not follow even the strictest instructions and procedures.

Accidents involving British nuclear weapons have happened for all these reasons. Some broader themes also emerge. The first of these is that it is impossible to guard against completely unpredicted and unforeseeable chance accidents. Nuclear weapons are complex technical systems, which themselves are part of wider systems of even greater complexity. 'Normal accident theory', developed by Charles Perrow, postulates that accidents are inevitable in complex and tightly linked systems. With nuclear weapons we are dealing with extremely complex systems, and the potential consequences if things go wrong are grave.

A second theme is that when operational needs come up against the demands of safety, operational imperatives consistently trump safety. Under these circumstances, when operational essentials confront safety needs the balance will always fall in favour of keeping the operation going.

The third theme to surface relates to the honesty with which the authorities will report on nuclear accidents. Government sources have invariably underplayed the seriousness of accidents involving nuclear weapons and refrained from telling the whole story.

To address these concerns we make three recommendations to the government:

  1. Introduce procedures for publicly reporting accidents involving nuclear weapons. In order to remove the cloak of official secrecy which surrounds nuclear safety in the Ministry of Defence, safety regulators should prepare a quarterly report describing and evaluating all accidents with an International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) rating of one or more which have occurred within the MoD's nuclear programmes.

  2. Place Ministry of Defence nuclear programmes under external regulation. We propose that regulation of the military nuclear programme should become the responsibility of an expanded Office for Nuclear Regulation, and visibly subject to the same regulatory standards as the civil nuclear sector. Such a step would help reduce the conflict of interest that the Secretary of State for Defence faces in managing nuclear programmes and redress the balance between meeting operational requirements and maintaining safety standards.

  3. Support an international ban on nuclear weapons. NIS believes that the only way of eliminating the risks posed by an accident involving one of Britain's nuclear weapons is to eliminate nuclear weapons themselves. This year negotiations will commence at the United Nations on a nuclear ban treaty which will prohibit the use, deployment, and manufacture of nuclear weapons. The ban treaty gives us an opportunity to get rid of nuclear weapons for once and for all, and Britain should embrace this opportunity.

Download full report PDF  - Hard copies available on request while stocks last - donations towards print and postage welcomed.