A secret decision to exempt Ministry of Defence (MoD) nuclear transport arrangements from hazard warning legislation has been revealed as a result of questioning by Members of Parliament.
Ministers have admitted that it is “not current Ministry of Defence policy” to display radioactive material hazard signs on the special trucks used to transport military special nuclear materials or nuclear warheads. Until recently MoD vehicles transporting special nuclear materials carried hazard warning signs when transporting radioactive cargoes, but this policy has now been quietly abandoned.
MoD claims that the change is needed to maintain its policy to 'neither conform nor deny' the presence of nuclear weapons at a particular location – but campaigners claim that the department is placing nuclear secrecy before measures the protection of public safety.
The change in practice was disclosed in the reply to a Parliamentary Question to the Secretary of State for Defence asked by Labour MP Paul Flynn.
Further questions from the Scottish National Party's Owen Thompson have revealed that a decision to cease displaying radioactive material hazard warning signs on vehicles carrying special nuclear materials was made by the Defence Equipment and Support organisation in July 2011.
Penny Mordaunt, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, said that the change was implemented in 2012 in anticipation of the transition to a single type of vehicle for the transport of both nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials and was needed “in order to maintain the policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons”
The Minister claimed that MoD's arrangements for the transport of defence nuclear materials “include the provision of information to the emergency services in the event of an incident; this does not rely on displaying radioactive material hazard warning signs”.
Jane Tallents of Nukewatch warned that under the new arrangements public safety was taking second place to secrecy.
"Although the Ministry of Defence say they inform police when nuclear convoys are on the road, they have repeatedly refused to tell fire services, the ambulance service, or local council emergency planners about convoy movements”, she said.
"If one of these convoys is involved in an accident, would fire-fighters
arriving first on the scene have to wait until police turned up to find out that they were dealing with a highly hazardous radioactive cargo rather than a
normal road traffic accident?
“Although some members of the convoy crew are trained as medics and fire-fighters, their priority is looking after the convoy and its weapons, not the public.
"The Ministry of Defence is putting secrecy about its nuclear weapons
before the safety of the general public, who it is supposed to be protecting. That can never be right”.
Throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s special nuclear materials, nuclear warhead components, and other sensitive loads were carried by special 'High Security Vehicles' operated by the Atomic Weapons Establishment. As civilian vehicles, these were obliged to comply with hazard warning regulations and carry warning signs when transporting radioactive materials, explosives, or hazardous chemicals.
Over the same period nuclear weapons were transported separately in their own vehicles by the armed forces, who were able to claim exemption from displaying hazard warnings on their vehicles.
In the mid-2000s the transport of all nuclear cargoes, both special nuclear materials and warheads, was contracted out by MoD to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), and both cargoes are now carried by a single type of vehicle – the Truck Cargo Heavy Duty (TCHD) Mark 3 lorry. The TCHD trucks are operated by AWE, acting in the capacity of a civilian haulier which would not normally be exempt from hazard labelling regulations.
Despite ministerial policy that MoD should operate to safety standards at least as good as those required by legislation, the department has decided to exempt itself from this area of public protection legislation.
MoD has said that legal advice was sought and the regulator was notified before the decision to cease displaying hazard warning signs was made.