NIS Technical Briefing Note August 2007

Ministry of Defence proposals to replace nuclear weapons transport vehicles

On 10th May 2007 the Ministry of Defence provided copies of twelve documents relating to plans to replace the vehicles used to transport nuclear material by road to Caroline Lucas MEP in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents provide information about the process the Ministry of Defence is currently undergoing to replace the vehicles used to transport nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials. Key points are summarised below.

High security vehicles

  1. MoD has placed orders for a design feasibility study to be undertaken to replace the High Security Vehicles which are used to transport special nuclear materials (SNM) and also other radioactive materials (ORM), classified items, and explosive items. The current vehicles will reach the end of their operating life in 2009 and the feasibility study for replacement vehicles was due to be completed in May 2007. MoD’s favoured option for the new vehicles is a ‘modified commercial off the shelf’ solution: ie the purchase of commercially available vehicles which will be modified to meet the specific purpose of transporting nuclear materials. The scope of the study includes identifying suppliers that are able to provide suitable commercial vehicles.
  2. The current High Security Vehicles are owned by MoD but operated, supported, garaged, and maintained by AWE plc under the AWE Management and Operations contract. AWE has recommended that three replacement vehicles should be purchased to ensure that there are always at least two available in the event of an accident or major mechanical failure, but MoD seems to have concluded that two vehicles will be sufficient, as is currently the case.
  3. The MoD has investigated the use of a common vehicle capable of meeting both the nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials transport requirements. Current thinking seems to suggest that a combined vehicle approach will not provide a practicable solution, but MoD does not yet appear to have totally ruled out this option, and the possibility of using new TCHD nuclear weapons transporters (see below) was considered in the design feasibility study. Under current MoD policy Special Nuclear Material convoys are required to look different to nuclear weapon convoys and to carry radiation hazard signs.
  4. The design feasibility study appears to have been undertaken by QinetiQ in close co-operation with AWE. QinetiQ have experience in the design of specialist vehicles and AWE has operational experience in the use of the current vehicles.

Nuclear Weapon Transportation Capability Continuation Project

  1. MoD has established a ‘Nuclear Weapon Transportation Capability Continuation Project’ to replace the Truck Cargo Heavy Duty (TCHD) vehicles currently used to transport nuclear weapons, and also to manage the service for the road transport of nuclear weapons. Regardless of any plans for its replacement, the Trident nuclear weapons system is intended to continue in operation until the mid 2020s and the movement of nuclear warheads will continue over the intervening period. Replacement TCHD vehicles are required to be in service by October 2010, as beyond this point it will not be possible to maintain the existing vehicles to the standard necessary for the safe and secure transport of nuclear weapons. The favoured option which will be taken forward for replacing the current vehicles is to purchase new commercially supplied tractor units and refurbish the existing trailers. Not surprisingly, the warhead convoy vehicles are far from being normal trucks and are described as “an integrated “system” that incorporates a number of highly specialised environmental, nuclear security, and safety features which are designed to maintain the NW packages within approved parameters.”
  2. Alternatives to the road transport of nuclear weapons – air, sea, canal, and rail – have all been discounted as unsuitable on the basis of safety, practicability and security grounds.
  3. As well as procuring replacement vehicles, the project also considers the future management of the nuclear weapons transportation task. Although the nuclear weapons convoy vehicles are owned by the Ministry of Defence, they are currently garaged, maintained, and operated by AWE plc. AWE provides trained and qualified personnel to carry out certain convoy duties and supports the MoD police and other MoD units in the convoy planning process. However, the documents provided by the Ministry of Defence discuss a ‘HMNB Clyde solution’ which appears to be an option for allowing MoD in-house units to tender to manage the contract for replacing the vehicles and providing the transport service. Although the scope of this option is not clearly defined, the documents provided seem to suggest that under this option the nuclear warhead convoy vehicles would be based at HMNB Clyde. Some of the advantages identified for this option are “improved security owing to reduced warning opportunities” and “avoids unwelcome attention on commercial input to operational NW programming”. Nevertheless, the status quo (commercial contract service provided by AWE) is identified as the lowest risk solution, and it appears that both AWE and HMNB Clyde will be invited to tender for the work. A main gate business case (preferred bidder selected) was due to have been submitted by April 2007.
  4. The project for replacing the vehicles is currently at the tender negotiation stage. Slippage in the project, impacting on the nuclear weapons programme because of the resulting inability to transport nuclear weapons safely and securely, is identified as a high probability risk.
  5. Information has been exchanged with the governments of the United States and France regarding nuclear weapon transport security measures and best practice so as to allow options for collaboration with the US or France on nuclear weapons transport to be explored. In the event a collaborative approach was not pursued, although interestingly one of the secondary user requirements for the new vehicles is that “the user shall be able to respond to nuclear weapon emergencies involving US weapons.”
  6. Key user requirements for the project have been defined as:
    • The user (MoD Directorate of Nuclear Movements and Nuclear Accident Response Group) shall be able to transport the required number of Trident re-entry body assemblies at a frequency to support the national strategic deterrent programme.
    • The user shall be able to transport re-entry body assemblies by road between RNAD Coulport, Scotland, and AWE Burghfield, Berkshire
    • The user shall be able to maintain the environmental conditions of the re-entry body assembly within the serviceable environmental limits specified in the environmental definition document during normal transportation.
    • The user shall be able to maintain the re-entry body assembly in a safe state from postulated threats.
    • The convoy commander shall be able to communicate verbally with each nuclear transportation vehicle from the command and control vehicles.
  7. Because of the interest of ant-nuclear campaigners in the movement of nuclear weapons, the project has been flagged as one which may attract Ministerial interest. One of the criteria for selection of the replacement vehicles is that they “must offer minimal opportunity for access points, hand holds or lock-on points for unauthorised personnel.”


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