Nuclear disaster simulations expose history of errors – report

HMS Victorious is seen berthed at the Clyde Naval Base in Scotland. © Danny Lawson
Secret military exercises simulating the emergency response to nuclear weapons disasters reveal a catalog of errors and potentially lethal mishaps, according to reports prized from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The reports into nuclear safety exercises were written by the MoD’s Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) watchdog and exposed threatening delays, kit shortages and coordination and communications failings.

The reports were from the period 2011-2012. It has taken years of fighting by journalists using the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act to get the military to hand them over, despite the normal waiting period being only 20 days.

The findings were published on Tuesday by Scottish investigative journalism site The Ferret in tandem with the Guardian newspaper.

The report, which features a number of redactions on security grounds, covers two exercises codenamed Astral Bend which took place in Wales in February 2011 and Oxfordshire in March 2012.

They were based on the fiction of two aircraft carrying nuclear materials like plutonium being downed and causing a spread of radioactivity over an area of five kilometers.

The Welsh exercise saw fire services and ambulance staff clash over when to take seriously injured and contaminated casualties away. The DNSR said such an issue would “lead to avoidable deaths” in a real incident.

Command and control were also hindered by inadequately trained military commanders, resulting in a lengthy delay, the report found.

At the 2012 Oxfordshire exercise, the first responders themselves were contaminated and there was “ambiguity” about the size of the irradiated area.

A third exercise, Astral Climb, was played out in November 2012 from a barracks in Northumbria and involved a 20 vehicle nuclear convoy of a type commonly used in reality. The task was for the vehicles to drive from Berkshire to Glasgow.

For reasons which were redacted, the convoy prevented first responders from reaching the site of a hypothetical nuclear disaster.

A decision which “may have contributed to the number of fatalities within the exercise,” the report found.

There were also “delays and a lack of urgency” in rescue operations and it was also found that “the role of the convoy medic was unclear and the provision of medical equipment was not adequate.”

The DNSR called for an “an overarching, fundamental review” of first response procedures, which apparently took place three years later in 2015 but has not been published.

Earlier exercises, the records of which were already available, also indicate struggles in the handling of mock threats.

A 2010 exercise “struggled to manage” while a training scenario based on a motorway pileup experienced “major difficulties,” according to an earlier report.

Independent nuclear expert and engineer John Large told The Ferret the report did not bode well for any future nuclear incident.

He said the Astral exercises were “characterized by delay upon delay, with crucial time being eked away by duplication of effort and confusion on the ground.

In the chaotic aftermath of a real incident there is little reassurance that the MoD and our civilian emergency services would at all cope,” he added.

The MoD defended its record on nuclear weapons safety in a statement, saying “we can be clear that convoys are conducted to the strictest safety standards.

The ministry said all relevant agencies and weather predictions were consulted for both exercises and live convoys and that their safety history is excellent.

In over 50 years of transporting nuclear material by road in the UK, there has never been an incident that has presented any risk to the public or to the environment,” a spokesman said.