Delays and mistakes made during a major accident exercise involving a nuclear weapon would have resulted in Scotland being left to fend for itself by Whitehall government departments during a critical period in the handling of the emergency, according to an official report.
No official information about the disaster would have been available to the public for several hours after the accident, and hold-ups in the medical response to the emergency meant that a seriously injured casualty who might otherwise have survived would have died.
The catalogue of errors is revealed in internal Ministry of Defence reports on the handling of Exercise Senator 2011 – a rehearsal of arrangements for tackling an emergency involving a British nuclear weapon being transported along Scotland's roads to the Trident nuclear submarine base on the Clyde. The reports (available to download at the bottom of this article) were released to Nuclear Information Service following a request made under the Freedom of Information Act.
The real-life exercise took place at HMS Gannet, Prestwick Airport, Ayrshire, in September 2011, roleplaying an imaginary accident involving a nuclear weapons convoy which took place on the M74 near junction 5 at Motherwell – one of Scotland's busiest sections of motorway.
Under the nightmare accident scenario, the emergency occurred when a large goods vehicle travelling north on the motorway suffered a front tyre blowout, causing it to crash through the central reservation into a nuclear weapons convoy. A truck loaded with Trident nuclear warheads swerved to avoid the accident and tipped over onto its side, and as a goods vehicle carrying road-surfacing equipment swerved to avoid the accident, its load broke loose and collided with another warhead carrier.
Two casualties died immediately as a result of the accident, seven more were injured, and between 50 and 100 drivers caught up in the incident were contaminated by radioactive material released as nuclear warheads burnt in the fire caused by the accident. A plume of radioactivity drifted away from the accident scene placing nearby homes and property at risk.
An exercise evaluation report prepared by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) concluded that there was “essentially no MOD input to (and certainly no presence at)” the main strategic emergency control centre until Ministry of Defence co-ordinating personnel arrived five and a half hours after the accident – “a realistic timescale for an accident in Scotland”.
The lack of support from MoD created “major difficulties for the multi-agency response, which struggled to attain a meaningful understanding of the issues”. DNSR concluded that the lack of support “over such an extended and critical period” was “not acceptable”.
Scientific and technical advice provided by MoD to local civil agencies was also deemed “not adequate”, with “no apparent leadership or structure” and “repeated changes in representation” from MoD staff responsible for providing technical information, who at times disputed advice provided by local agencies.
The accident site response for treating casualties “became disorganised”, and it was “less than clear who was in charge” of medical arrangements at the scene. There was “considerable delay” in developing a plan to manage casualties contaminated with radioactivity and “significant further delay” in getting agreement send paramedics into the contaminated area to receive casualties. As a result of the delays, exercise controllers declared that a seriously injured casualty who might otherwise have survived had died.
Personnel tasked with briefing the media about the incident were misdirected to the wrong location, “which delayed any effective media response by several hours”, meaning that in a real life accident, no official information or safety advice would have been provided by the government to the media and the public.
The police were formally alerted to the accident by a fax message sent to the police headquarters, leading the exercise assessors to drily conclude that “arrangements for providing the initial written alert to the police are not adequate”.
Over 1000 personnel from 21 different government agencies took part in the exercise at various locations across Central Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, and the exercise was observed by nuclear weapons specialists from the USA and France.
Several of the government agencies which participated in the event were critical of the MoD's preparations for the exercise, with the Scottish Government commenting that “exercise instructions were sent out too late by MoD and arrangements were finalised too late”, impacting on the level of Scottish Government involvement in the exercise. Other agencies complained that no funding had been provided by the Ministry of Defence to run the exercise, documentation was only received the day before the event, and that the exercise play had started before all agencies had arrived at the mock accident site. As a result, DNSR concluded that “more systematic arrangements are required for exercise planning, particularly when engaging with many agencies.”
Councillor Bill Butler of Glasgow City Council, a former Member of the Scottish Parliament and chair of the Nuclear Free Local Authorities Scotland Forum said:
“To hear that in this exercise the Ministry of Defence was not advising senior emergency service and local authority representatives for a large amount of time, that public information provision was poor, and that the Ambulance Service were not able to deal with radioactively contaminated casualties sounds the alarm that emergency planning arrangements may not be as robust as they should be.
“I urge the Ministry of Defence to take the outcomes of this exercise very seriously and work more closely with local authorities and the emergency services to resolve these planning gaps”.
Download the Ministry of Defence reports on Exercise Senator 2011 here: