Sunday, 6 September 2015

Trident: secrecy and safety

There are many people in the UK who believe that nuclear weapons have kept us safe all these years. Thanks to a compliant media and a political consensus among the Westminster bubble that statement remains relatively unchallenged. The SNP brought the issue into the spotlight with questions about the future of the Faslane submarine base being raised during the referendum campaign. Recently George Osborne raised the stakes talking about pouring a massive investment of taxpayer’s money into the base. 

What is missing from the rhetoric and supine ignorance is an overview from an objective observer. Eric Schlosser made his name as an investigative writer with an excellent expose of the fast food industry.  ‘Fast Food Nation’ revealed sordid details of how chickens and cattle were treated on their way to becoming part of our diet.

He recently turned a forensic eye to the history of nuclear weapons in another admirable work — ‘Command and Control’. A major theme running through the book is that governments lie about nuclear incidents. Their default position is to lie, to cover up what has happened and to play down any potential harm to the public. The Soviet Union kept all their many incidents under wraps by ruthless means. It was Sweden who detected the radioactive plume from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The ‘good guys’ used news management and threats of security breaches to ensure the mass media told a predominantly benign tale. There have been many, many incidents which almost caused a complete disaster, plus countless others of a minor nature. Many involved storage and loading incidents e.g a nuclear weapon armed US fighter plane at Lakenheath in the UK catching fire when being refuelled, fortunately without the high explosive detonator in the warhead going off. This was not mentioned in the UK press. Similarly, many other incidents were not reported in official media. 

The culture of secrecy is all pervasive with good reason. Giving away details of how your thermonuclear warhead works would fall under ‘Aiding the enemy’ regulations. However there is a massive downside to the secrecy as Schlosser makes clear.

“Secrecy is essential to the command and control of nuclear weapons….In the years since Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the design specifications of American nuclear weapons have been ‘born secret.’ They are not classified by government officials; they’re classified as soon as they exist… is intended to keep valuable information away from America’s enemies. But an absence of public scrutiny has often made nuclear weapons more dangerous and more likely to cause a disaster.
Again and again, safety problems were hidden not only from the public but also from the officers and enlisted personnel who handled nuclear weapons every day. The strict compartmentalised secrecy hid safety problems from the scientists and engineers responsible for weapon safety. ….
…’Accidents and Incidents Involving Nuclear Weapons’ [obtained by the author using Freedom of Information] covered the period from the summer of 1957 until the spring of 1967. It was 245 pages long. It gave brief accounts of the major Broken Arrows [serious nuclear weapon incidents] during that period. It also described hundreds of minor accidents, technical glitches, and seemingly trivial events…..I shared the document with Bob Peurifoy and Bill Stevens [both experts heavily involved with making the handling and storage of nuclear weapons safer] —who had never seen it. Both were upset after reading it. The Defense Atomic Support Agency had never told them about hundreds of accidents.”

Frequently it is only the sight of protection-suited military personnel carrying Geiger Counters after an incident which blows a hole in the official line. As for incidents in remote spots who is to tell whether plutonium dust has contaminated the land around an accident site? 

Tony Benn told the story of when he was the Minister of Technology in Harold Wilson’s Labour government (1966-70). He said he was not informed by his top civil servants about the great fire at Windscale in 1957 (now re-named Sellafield). One outcome was that thousands of gallons of contaminated milk from farms as far away as north Lancashire were destroyed amid strict security. Senior civil servants at the ministry clearly knew about the fallout risks but felt under no obligation to tell their Minister, even while he was pursuing his policy of nuclear power expansion. The fact that Windscale was involved in producing plutonium for the UK’s nuclear weapons wrapped the plant in massive secrecy. 

As for Trident, this is what Schlosser has to say:

“The only weapons in today’s stockpile that trouble Peurifoy are the W-76 and W-88 warheads carried by submarine launched Trident II missiles. The Drell panel expressed concern about these warheads more than twenty years ago. Both of them rely on conventional high explosives, instead of insensitive high explosives. The Navy had insisted upon use of the more dangerous explosive to reduce the weight of the warheads, increase their range, and slightly increase their yield. The decision was unfortunate from a safety perspective, because the multiple warheads of a Trident II don’t sit on top of the missile. They surround the the rocket motor of its third stage, as a space-saving measure. And the Navy chose a high-energy propellant for the rocket motor that’s much more likely to explode in an accident — simply by being dropped or struck by a bullet — than other solid fuels. A Trident submarine has as many as twenty-four of these missiles, each carrying between four to five warheads. An accident with one missile could detonate the third-stage propellant, set off the high explosives of the warheads, and spread a good deal of plutonium around the ports in Georgia and Washington State where Trident submarines are based.”

The UK keeps a stockpile of thermonuclear weapons at the Faslane site, which is approximately 25 miles west from Glasgow. An explosion on a Trident submarine at Faslane could send a mass of highly radioactive particles towards the conurbation of Glasgow given a malign wind. The outcome would be catastrophic. 

Perhaps Osborne should invest taxpayers money into a nuclear base on the Thames if he is so confident of their safety. It is not difficult to imagine the outcry from Tory supporting Russian oligarchs who have invested some of their millions buying property in London. They may want their donations to the Tory party back.

Anyone still feeling sublimely relaxed about the safety of nuclear weapons is  asked to review their thinking. Begin by reading ‘Command and Control’.

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