Mark Ruskell: There’s too much secrecy about nuclear weapons convoys

Submarines are seen alongside the jetty at the Royal Navy's base at Faslane. (Picture: Getty)
Submarines are seen alongside the jetty at the Royal Navy's base at Faslane. (Picture: Getty)
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Several times a year, convoys of heavy lorries carrying a dangerous mix of nuclear materials surrounded by high explosives pass through our communities, yet most people living along the routes are unaware. The convoys travel between atomic weapon plants in Berkshire and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Long.

The lorries regularly pass through Glasgow, Renfrewshire, West Dunbartonshire, Stirling, Falkirk, Edinburgh, East and West Lothian, Midlothian, Scottish Borders, North and South Lanarkshire and Dumfries & Galloway, so these movements matter to millions of people.

If you were a haulier, regulations would prohibit you from transporting radiological material in the same vehicle as explosives for the obvious reason that a detonation would disperse the radioactive material. The Ministry of Defence itself says the high explosive in a Trident warhead would have an impact radius of 600 metres. The radioactive material includes both plutonium and uranium, with a potential dispersal range of at least five kilometres. It seems what is deemed too risky for civilian convoys is acceptable for military ones. This bending of the rules poses a clear risk.

Community safety and emergency planning is the responsibility of the Scottish Government, with Police Scotland, firefighters, the ambulance service, councils and the NHS classed as ‘Category One’ responders – in other words, when something goes wrong, they’re expected to be first on the scene and to keep local people informed.

READ MORE: Greens seek review of nuclear convoy safety

Worryingly, it has become clear that local authorities and the Scottish Government are failing in their duties to prepare for a nuclear weapon convoy accident. Tomorrow I will lead a debate in the Scottish Parliament, putting pressure on Scottish Ministers to agree to a review of emergency planning.

Last August, a report by Nukewatch UK, a group that monitors nuclear weapons movements, highlighted Freedom of Information requests from myself and other Green MSPs which showed that none of the relevant local authorities has conducted risk assessments of the convoys. None has taken any proactive steps to inform the public about the risks or explain how the council would respond to an incident. This is a critical gap in our emergency planning. By contrast, information on what to do in an emergency involving a nuclear submarine is circulated to residents close to the Coulport and Faslane bases. The only reason there is any public awareness of these convoys is thanks to citizen monitors such as Nukewatch. The culture of secrecy that originally surrounded the traffic has been gradually eroded but it is still the default position across public authorities. For example, at a trial in Dumbarton Sheriff Court last year of a peace protester who lay down in the road to stop a nuclear weapons convoy, two of the three Police Scotland witnesses said they had no idea what the lorries might contain.

READ MORE: Video: Pensioner stops nuclear weapon convoy in Stirling

The Scottish Government, which is responsible for community safety and emergency planning, cannot brush off this issue because defence is a reserved matter. It must urgently lead a review of the situation and make its findings public. SNP and Labour MSPs are supporting my debate motion, so Scottish Ministers are under pressure to provide an adequate response. Nuclear weapons are abhorrent but until we can put them beyond use, we must be honest about the risks to our communities.

Mark Ruskell is environment spokesperson for the Scottish Greens