Three top-secret mock nuclear accidents that were staged to test the responses of the military and emergency services have revealed numerous mistakes that would have led to “avoidable deaths”, according to official assessments. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was so concerned about the problems that it carried out “an overarching, fundamental review” behind closed doors last year of arrangements for handling serious nuclear weapons incidents.
Assessments of the emergency exercises, carried out by the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), exposed a string of mishaps, including life-threatening delays, equipment shortages, coordination failures and communication breakdowns. One report criticised officials for “substantially understating” the scale of the dangers facing the public in a staged press conference.
The MoD took more than two years to agree to hand over reports on three nuclear bomb exercises in 2011 and 2012 to the investigative website The Ferret, despite freedom of information laws requiring documents to be released within 20 working days.
Two of the exercises, codenamed Astral Bend, imagined aircraft carrying nuclear weapons ingredients crashing and spreading plutonium and other radioactive contamination up to three miles (5km) away. One took place at the Caerwent military base in south Wales on 24 February 2011, and the other at Heyford Park in Oxfordshire on 27 March 2012.
At the 2011 exercise there was a major mix-up over how to deal with contaminated casualties. The fire service was criticised by DNSR for refusing to allow ambulance teams to take away seriously injured people until they had been decontaminated.
“The interpretation of the absolute necessity to decontaminate every casualty or person from within the determined ‘hot zone’ did, and would in the event of such an incident, lead to avoidable deaths,” the report concluded.
The training of military commanders was “inadequate” because of cutbacks, and there was a “lengthy delay” before they liaised with emergency services, it said.
Media questions at a briefing during Astral Bend 2011 were “not well handled, in particular substantially understating the scale of the hazards”.
At the second Astral Bend exercise in 2012 emergency responders were contaminated at the accident scene, a helicopter was delayed and fax numbers were “incorrectly notified”.
The third exercise envisaged an accident involving the 20-vehicle nuclear weapons convoy that regularly travels by road between Burghfield in Berkshire and Coulport on the Clyde near Glasgow. Astral Climb was played out on 15 November 2012 at Albemarle barracks in Northumberland.
For reasons that have been redacted, the bomb convoy prevented fire and ambulance services from getting to casualties for 40 minutes when their help was “critically required”, a DNSR report said. “This may have contributed to the number of fatalities within the exercise.”