November 1, 2012 by Nash Riggins
Every month, at an undisclosed time of an undisclosed day, a convoy of 44-ton Ministry of Defence vehicles travels through Stirling’s city centre. Each of these trucks is able to carry up to 8kg of enriched, weapons-grade plutonium or uranium – which is surrounded by specially developed conventional high explosives. This is Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent, in motion – and Stirling Council appears more or less keen to ignore its existence.
What is Trident?
Overlooking Gare Loch, HM Naval Base Clyde – more commonly referred to as Faslane – plays host to the four nuclear submarines that compose Britain’s nuclear bargaining chip: Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance. Each submarine wields a cargo of up to 16 Trident ballistic missiles, and each missile is capable of travelling at least 4,000 miles. In addition, each submarine carries three nuclear warheads – all of which wield the power to destroy Hiroshima three times over.
The Trident system was ordered by Margaret Tatcher in 1982 in order to replace the aging Polaris system; however, the programme did not go fully active until 1994, by which time the Cold War had already reached a decisive conclusion. Today, the UK ‘leases’ its Trident missiles from the US – and its nuclear submarines subsequently rely upon American software and satellites to use said missiles. In fact, American companies even own stake in the factory at Aldermaston – the English facility where the warheads are constructed – the operation of which costs UK taxpayers around £2bn per year.
The Nuclear Highway
After construction, these nuclear warheads must be transported from Berkshire to Faslane, which is located about 25 miles northwest of Glasgow. In order to accomplish this, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) transports these weapons by road on a regular basis – although the exact time and route is subject to change almost every month. It is estimated that weapons-grade plutonium is transported through Scotland 5-6 times every year – whilst practice-runs of the convoy take place approximately every 4-6 weeks.
Each convoy – whether or not it is laden with explosives – consists of around 100 MoD personnel. The convoys are composed of 3-5 warhead load carriers – which are behemoth, 44 ton, seven-axle dark green trucks, a number of MoD Police escort vehicles, military support vehicles, a team of Royal Marines in white minibuses and at least one MoD fire engine.
In the convoy’s history, there have been a total of seven accidents; however, according to the MoD, none of said incidents “have involved the release of radioactive material.” That said, an unclassified summary of a report by Sir Ronald Oxburgh, the former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence, contradicted the MoD by maintaining that there have actually been “some twenty” accidents since 1960.
Throughout the past 20 years, politicians and activists alike have expressed alarm with regards to the potential long-term health risks of said convoys travelling through their towns. That said, no major health issues that have emerged along the convoy’s general route have been directly attributed to its presence.
John Cow has worked as an MoD officer following the convoy as protection since 2003. He dismisses such health and safety concerns, and considers long-term exposure to the weapons-grade materials ‘perfectly safe’.
“People may think that nuclear transportation will be harmful to your health,” Cow argues. “But, there is less radiation to your body from this role than, say, a flight over the Atlantic to the States.”
More worrying than long-term radiation damage, however, is the lingering notion that a major incident on the road could cause one of the weapons detonating – inadvertently leading to a cataclysmic loss in human life.
Whitehall has always insisted that a nuclear explosion is impossible whilst the convoy is in transit, as the warhead’s plutonium core must be “compressed symmetrically” by conventional explosives in order to detonate. What’s more, Trident weapons are designed to be “single point safe”; therefore, a blow from any single point should not be able to trigger all of the explosives around the core.
Yet in a previously released MoD document, government officials admitted that “Trident nuclear weapons damaged in a vehicle pile-up or a plane crash could partially detonate and deliver a lethal radiation dose … A serious vehicle collision or an aircraft crash combined with multiple failures of the MoD’s secret protective measures could mean that the weapon might not remain single-point safe.” The report goes on to place the overall yearly risk of an “inadvertent yield” whilst Trident weapons are in transit at 2.4 in 1 billion.
Planning for the Worst
While the odds of any potential disaster continue to be played down by government officials, local Council authorities have in the past gone to great lengths in order to ensure that their citizens are fully prepared to cope with any potential incidents surrounding the Trident convoys.
Kenneth Wardrop, who graduated from Stirling University in 1982, took part in one such planning session whilst working for Edinburgh’s City Council.
“This was an MoD-led emergency planning – what they call a table-top exercise – that went on for two days involving all of the Edinburgh Council,” he recalls. “The scenario was that an aircraft taking off from the Edinburgh airport, if its engine fell off and dropped on top of a nuclear weapons convoy – and it was pretty amazing, horrendous even, what the outcome of that was in terms of the impact.”
Indeed, Edinburgh Council has regularly worked with the MoD in the past regarding emergency exercises and emergency planning that concern Faslane; however, the Council admittedly receives no information regarding the convoy’s actual movements.
“In general, the City of Edinburgh Council has liaised with the MOD and has been involved in emergency planning regarding nuclear weapons transport convoys,” confirmed Paul Young, who works in Edinburgh’s Emergency Planning Office. “In the past, some years ago, Lothian and Borders Police would alert the City of Edinburgh Council when a convoy was scheduled to be in transit through our area. Such notifications no longer take place.”
Stirling Council has taken part in no such exercise; however, these convoys typically spend more time in Stirling than any other city. They enter Stirling via Springkerse, and stop at the Peak. They then travel around Stirling’s city centre, past Sainsbury’s and towards Glasgow via the A811.
“If you look at a map, Stirling is one of the areas that the convoys are travelling through for the longest,” Wardrop said. “You’d think there would be more avidness for an exercise, and I think that’s something the Council tries to wash its hands of.”
Now the Chairman of Stirling Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a local activist group, Mr Wardrop spends much of his leisure time attempting to convince Stirling’s city councillors that action must be taken in order to ensure that nuclear weapons stay off of Stirling’s streets; however, the Council admittedly doesn’t believe that the removal of said convoys is a major priority.
“In terms of trident, as a local councillor I don’t have a great deal of influence over the issue of nuclear weapons,” said Neil Benny, a Conservative City Councillor. “I’ve never had a sense that this is an issue that a lot of people care about. There is a fairly vocal minority who tend to make a lot of noise about the issue, but my sense is that the majority of people are comfortable about it. There is a high level of awareness as the police escorts and such like aren’t exactly inconspicuous and it seems to be generally known that they are nuclear convoys.”
Mr Wardrop, however, begs to differ. He does not believe that the majority of Stirling’s citizens have any clue whatsoever as to the true nature of the MoD convoys, and would be less than comfortable with it if they did.
“I don’t think people are aware at all,” Wardrop maintains. “It drives right through some of the most populated areas of Stirling – and I think people would be absolutely horrified if they realised that there are uranium and plutonium warheads in there surrounded by high explosives. What is that doing in the middle of a residential community?”
Indeed, David Mackenzie – another senior member of Stirling CND, as well as a similar group called Trident Ploughshares – asserts that Stirling Council has effectively taken a backseat role with regards to its city’s contribution to the UK’s ‘nuclear highway’.
“[Stirling Council] has two responsibilities: first, you’ve got to ensure that you’re liaising with the MoD and with your local emergency services,” Mackenzie said. “The second thing is, there’s a duty of care for the population involved and advice – and this is where I think [the Council] haven’t fully grasped what a nuclear weapon convoy is.”
Mr Mackenzie claims that other Councils have viable emergency plans that involve the public – such as distributing iodine tablets and ensuring that the public stay indoors – meanwhile, “Stirling Council does nothing.”
In fact, Stirling Council’s Emergency Planning Office does not deny that it currently has no contingency plans in place regarding the numerous ‘what-if’ scenarios surrounding MoD nuclear convoys.
“We have a set of generic response plans for different types of emergencies. In relation to the impact of these emergencies, we identify the most vulnerable individuals and respond to the incident accordingly,” a spokesperson said. “But in the context of Trident, the MoD doesn’t advise local authorities for security purposes. They specifically do not let us know when and where these convoys are going to come through Stirling. They come at different times, stay at different times and leave at different times – but we at the Council aren’t routinely advised.”
Stirling Council maintains the position that MoD policy dictates all local council authorities are kept in the dark with regards to their city’s respective role in Trident; however, the Emergency Planning Office claims that local emergency services are typically notified as to when active nuclear materials will be on board. Yet according to Kenneth Wardrop, the MoD tends to opt out of liaising with Stirling’s local emergency services.
“That’s what surprises me. That they don’t have to notify our local emergency services, and I think the Council really is persuaded by the MoD just to ‘leave it to them’.”
‘Leave it to us’
Stirling Council hasn’t always expressed such apathy with regards to its starring role in the movements of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
“At one time, Stirling is what you would call a nuclear-free local authority, and Stirling was quite active,” Mr Wardrop recalls. “They helped fund quite a lot of awareness raising about the convoys.”
In fact, before Stirling was granted its city status, Stirling Council’s legislative precursor was heavily involved in local activism. Throughout the 1990s, the ruling local Labour party helped to fund and distribute flyers to the public that warned Stirling’s citizens about what the nuclear convoys were and what they were carrying. The Council also helped local activists to sponsor a regular street booth in order to increase public awareness regarding the dangers of Stirling’s regular nuclear visitors – although the enactment of legislature geared at limiting street vendors put a stop to this some ten years ago.
With the shake-up of several policy reversals regarding the Trident’s role in national politics, however, David Mackenzie says that the Council’s support dropped practically overnight.
“The new regime under Stirling Council is very much aware of the Westminster dimension, and have kind of lost a sense of being independent,” Mackenzie said. “They basically just said ‘we’re not interested in engaging in gesture politics’, so that was the end of that. And we have not made much contact with the ruling Labour Party since then.”
Kenneth Wardrop agrees that the ruling parties within Stirling Council do not tend to voice support for the cause of groups such as Stirling CND.
“The local Labour-Conservative coalition in the Council isn’t particularly sympathetic at all,” he said. “I think individual councillors probably are – but with the coalition, it’s not very high on their agenda.”
Indeed, the group has received a relatively recent influx of support from some councillors in Stirling; however, it seems the prioritisation of nuclear disarmament – even at the most local of levels – has evolved along divisive party lines.
‘The Only Way is Independence’
Last month, Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP) lost two of its members after the party narrowly voted to remain affiliated with NATO subsequent to a successful independence referendum. This move appeared to contradict the general ideology amongst many SNP politicians that Scotland should be a nuclear-free nation; however, the First Minister continues to maintain that one of the SNP’s “top priorities” is to ensure that the UK’s nuclear deterrent is removed from Scotland’s borders.
According to local activists, this ideology trickles right down to the lowest level of Scottish politics, and reflects the political alignments of both activists and sympathisers in Stirling.
Bruce Crawford, MSP for Stirling, regularly voices his disdain for the role his city plays in the UK’s nuclear deterrent – and asserts that Stirling will not rid itself of the Trident convoys without first voting for independence.
“The SNP position is that obscene weapons of mass destruction must be removed from Scottish soil and Scottish waters, and that is exactly what a future SNP Government of an independent Scotland will deliver,” Crawford said. “In 2014 Scotland will have a referendum on independence, and Scotland will have the opportunity to secure all the powers of a normal country and rid our country of nuclear weapons.”
Steven Paterson, a local SNP Councillor for Stirling East, has also reiterated the firm commitment expressed by his party with regards to the MoD convoys that regularly travel next to his district.
“It is a real concern that nuclear weapon convoys are travelling through Stirling so regularly, and that these abhorrent weapons continue to be based here,” Paterson said. “Removing nuclear weapons from Scotland is a non-negotiable policy of the SNP, and I look forward to a future Scottish Government with the powers to deliver this.”
Indeed, it appears as if local activists also agree that Stirling’s streets will continue to play a role in the UK’s nuclear highway until independence can be attained.
“The political atmosphere is changing,” Mackenzie reckons. “But I don’t think we’ll ever rid Scotland of the Trident without independence.”
That said, the SNP’s contentious declaration to continue working with NATO – which Mr Mackenzie refers to as “a nuclear-armed combatant” – has left room for many to wonder whether Alex Salmond would also buckle on his stance against playing home to Trident in an effort to gain Scottish independence.
Last week it emerged that the UK government is pushing ahead with a long-term, £350m reinvestment in the Trident system – which fails to account for Mr Salmond’s tentative plans for nuclear disarmament. Philip Hammond, the UK’s Defence Secretary, said that the UK government is not planning on moving the Trident based solely upon the whims of Alex Salmond.
“We are very confident the Scottish people will recognise the value of remaining within the UK and choose to do so,” Hammond said. “We are not making any plans for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum.”
Only time will tell whether independence truly does bring about an end of Scotland’s role in housing the UK’s nuclear deterrent – and if the UK’s Defence Secretary has his way, there’s a good chance that it never will. In the meantime, Stirling CND will continue to spread the word about Stirling’s relatively unknown role in the UK’s nuclear highway.
“The whole issue of transporting nuclear materials on the road is one thing, but it’s a constant reminder to us here in Stirling that Trident is just 50 miles away – and that Britain’s weapons of mass destruction are literally on our doorstep,” Mr Wardrop said. “The MoD should not be transporting nuclear materials by road – especially right into the heart of communities such as Stirling. And we’ll continue to campaign and lobby and bang on people’s doors until they listen.”