Special Escort Group – Special nuclear material convoys

Special Nuclear Materials Convoys

From TalkThrough – The Magazine of the Ministry of Defence
Issue 118 June/July 2004

Special nuclear material by road in the UK

A Potted History of the SNM

Although this feature on the Special Nuclear Materials Convoys follows on from the Nuclear Weapons Convoys article in last TalkThrough, the SNM Convoys were the first involvement MDP had with such convoy work.

They started nearly 26 years ago, in 1978, and their purpose was to escort the MOD´s Special Nuclear Materials around the United Kingdom. Most of this work being to, and from, the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.

Explains Convoy Commander, Temporary Inspector Mick Nottage, “It was because of the excellent track record of this service provided by this specialist section of Ministry of Defence Police, over a period of nearly 22 years, that the Ministry of Defence decided to bring the escorting of all Defence Nuclear Material, Nuclear Weapons and Special Nuclear Material under one roof.

“At this point the Royal Air Force took on a training role with SEG, training MDP to escort nuclear weapons convoys. This was mainly SEG, as the Nuclear Guard Force was not in place at the time; that came later. From March 2002, the RAF handed over the training task to MDP and this now takes place primarily at Aldermaston, but also at other locations.’

Special nuclear material by road in the UK

The Family Tree

The SNM and NW are two convoys operated by the Special Escort Group and its officers, being multi-trained, are interchangeable. As well as MDP officers, the groups also include civilian fire fighters, civilian drivers and civilian safety escorts.

The same officers carry out both convoys, using two different vehicle fleets and communication systems and procedures. It is however Force policy that both Convoys will be fully integrated by October 2005.

A Growth in Complement

The only reason recruiting is taking place is because there has been a sizeable increase in the complement levels over the last couple of months. Numerous vacancies have been advertised in Force Orders in April 2004 and recruitment will be on-going until all posts are filled. This increase covers all grades, with the largest increase at Constable level.

Says T/Inspr Nottage: “ Myself and my colleagues have no desire to move out of the group for other duties within MDP; we totally enjoy what we´re doing. We have a great deal of job satisfaction.’

The latest word on how recruiting is progressing comes from Emma Fenn, Recruiting Officer at MDP HQ, who says: “The response to the recent SEG vacancy advertisement in Force Orders has enabled the Selection & Development Department to fill one Chief Inspector, two Inspector, one Sergeant and 9 Constable posts, with another 7 Constables expressing an interest.

“It is anticipated that the remaining vacancies will be filled, either internally or through the recruitment of transferee officers, as there continue to be expressions of interest.’

What are the Duties of a SNM Convoy?

“We support deliveries of Special Nuclear Material, which means that our work is classified and sensitive, requiring considerable discretion form us all, which adds to the physical and mental challenges posed by our tasks. Our work involves close liaison with the Fleet and with Atomic Weapons Establishment.

Other MOD tasks have included transporting the Meteorological Office´s mainframe computer from Bracknell to their new offices in Exeter.

Special nuclear material by rail in the UKAs well as road escort, the SNM also provide rail escort and for this the team members have to be qualified in Network Rail Personal Track Safety (PTS) and requalify every two years, with periodic medicals, including drink and drugs checks. MDP officers are accompanied by radiological safety escorts and railway personnel.


“Once you have completed Convoy training’ Mick explains, “you are then qualified to interchange and work on both sets of convoys. I will start my Nuclear Weapon training when the time is right for the group; I am looking forward to it.’

“To work on the SEG you need to be flexible in your approach to work. You see, sometimes we are out for several days and then may spend the next couple of weeks doing routine maintenance and training. Training is constant; at the moment there are four training weeks a year, which means on average one every three months.’

Special nuclear material by road in the UK

Escort Commander – Temporary Sergeant Dave James Dave James has been Escort Commander for six weeks, but has vast experience of SEG work having been in the escort job for ten years.

“Once I qualify as a Sergeant, I will then be able to apply for the Escort Commander job,’ explains Dave James.

“On a convoy, I travel in the Escort Commander´s vehicle and, with my team, we are responsible for ensuring we go the right way. Liaising with Home Office police forces and my sweep team, snap decisions have to be made at times. The journeys can be long; up to ten hours, or as short as three hours, with different routes taken every time. We keep the same team for the duration of the journey. Convoy Commander has overall control; his decision is the final one.

“On a personal note, I have just finished my Bachelor of Arts at Open University, studying Humanities with English Literature. Next year, I will study for an MA and take my promotion exam.’

Sergt James is enthusiastic as he extols the benefits of working for the SEG. “The variety of work is broad whether it be dealing with the public, with agencies, undergoing training, specializing in driving, tactics or firearms. Why do you think none of us want to leave? It´s called ‘job satisfaction´.’

T/Inspr Mick Nottage – best Job in the Force (sorry Chief!) T/Inspr Nottage is convinced he and his colleagues have the best jobs in the Force. “I have been here for ten years and it´s got to be the best job in the Force. I started my working life with the Operational Support Unit, based at RAF Wittering, and then at Aldermaston Station. With this job, every day is different and every job is different. You don´t know what is going to happen next. You must be able to think on your feet, be prepared for last minute adjustments whether it is re-routing due to road closures, accidents or congestion. He adds: “Your brain goes into over-time; no chance of getting bored I can tell you.’

Asked how he deals with anti-nuclear demonstrators and other protesters, he responds, “We acknowledge their right to conduct peaceful protest. However, if an offence has been committed we will usually instigate proceedings for a prosecution to be considered by the CPS. Most of the public understand the reasons to stop where they are until the convoy has passed. On the motorways, we implement rolling road blocks and it might look to the public that we are the ones causing delays, but they don´t always fully appreciate that we know what is on up ahead and are acting on information received, and are taking into account the safe passage of the Convoy and other road users.’

What do you do as Convoy Commander? “I plan and prepare the SNM convoys, assisted by Temporary Sergt Dave James. I would just say that each temporary promotion is on a different time-scale but they get the temporary rank because they know the job and can do the work of the next rank up – you can never become substantive until you pass the promotion exams and boards.

“Dave carries out the Escort Commander´s role but we split the planning and preparation between us. We work well as a team. We regularly rotate the crewing so you have the opportunity of working with a different set of people.’

What are your tips for progression? “Don´t get me wrong,’ explains Mick, “I never decry people who don´t want promotion; our experienced Constables have an invaluable breadth of experience behind them. However, I would say if you want to get on you could instantly experience this by becoming a temporary sergeant. If the vacancy comes up, you can apply for it. All the temporary ranks are advertised internally, because of the specialization of the job; all the more reason to get into the group to be on the spot. Although this doesn´t sideline the promotional system, it does give you the experience.

“This goes for new probationers too. If you want to join the SEG the best place to apply for your first posting is AWE Division, for the reasons mentioned. Once you have the required amount of experience, you are then on location to apply for any posts within SEG. It makes sense.’

PC Trevor Hicks with 14 years´ experience in the SNM “I left for 18 months for personal reasons, but I knew I wanted to return to the group; thankfully I have been able to do so.

“Everyone can slot into most of the jobs; I do traffic cars and am in charge of communications. So, it is my task to make sure all the radios, telephones and encryption equipment are working. Everyone is currently Class 2 Driver qualified so that we fill for any absences.

“I have had some amusing situations, such as the time a sheep dog ended on my lap when I opened the car door. Although the dog seemed happy to have found a new friend I don´t think the farmer was too amused! That was in Scotland. Another time, at a roundabout, as I stopped the traffic a member of the public came up to me and said “Your convoy´s gone the other way!’ You have to be prepared for the jokers in the pack.

“It was different for me fourteen years ago than for those now having the opportunities to join straight away; I had to wait two years to get on, because few people left and the complement remained almost unchanged. But with the increase in numbers, the opportunity to join the SEG is now open to many more officers.’ He concludes: “I look forward to seeing some new faces on the SEG in the near future.’

Meet ‘Father of the Group´ PC Don McLean You have been called “One of SEG´s finest and most loyal officers.’ What´s your reaction to that description?

“I´m flattered. I have been on the Group a long time and enjoy the job.’

You are also known as ‘Father of the Group´ – tell us a bit about the changes you have seen within the SEG.

“I joined in 1979, so came in at the early stages. It was mainly AWE materials being transported to places like Cardiff, which was ROF Cardiff in those days, and various civilian agencies, such as Hunting Engineering.

“It was a smaller group then; about twelve PCs. All we did was close escort and, if we were doing different category jobs, we went with a civilian driver.

There weren´t protestors in those days; that started more or less at the time of Greenham Common.

“All we had was a PC in the cab of the high security vehicle, known affectionately as the Tonka, with a civilian driver and two Range Rovers with two PCs, and a Sergeant in one and an Inspector in the other. The Home Office police used to do traffic duties for us, mainly with cars and sometimes motorbikes. We now do our own traffic role; we train officers on the bikes. I started with a BMW R-80. Now we have ST 1100 Hondas which were designed specifically as a police bike.

“I now do close escort and recently was on the weapons side. I went on a ‘tick run´ and so I am now CQ (Convoy Qualified). To get this depends on how much training and how many jobs on the road you have done with the TCHD (Truck Cargo Heavy Duty).

“I have seen a few bosses come and go; Alan Skipper was an Inspector of the Group as Convoy Commander; he has now retired. I myself have only a couple of years to retirement, with twenty-five years under my belt. It´s time for fresh blood but I like to think I can help the next generation by passing on some of my experience.’

Are you Looking Forward to New Members Joining the Group?

“Yes,’ Don enthuses, “we do need more PCs. I know it might not be everyone´s cup of tea but for those who like the challenge, the teamwork and variety and have a flexible attitude, it´s great. When travelling on a convoy, you have to be in a state of high alert and the tasks mean you are always busy.’

A final few words from the Head of the Special Escort Group – Superintendent Bill Hammersley Supt Bill Hammersley appreciates the work and commitment put in by each and every member of the SNM team. He explains, “They all play an integral part and, as such, have the added value of being appreciated and relied upon by their team colleagues. Everyone contributes to the huge importance and significance of the role of the convoys in keeping the roads and public safe.’

He continues: “I´d also like to thank the staff at AWE Division for their help and support over the years, particularly when numbers were tight and matters were difficult. Also, a big ‘Well done´ to the OSU for their help on security at staging posts and last, but not least, to the CIR staff who monitor and assist every mile of the journeys. The whole function works well because of the enormous team effort, demonstrating the benefits of corporate values and joint enterprise in contributing to the success of the Group´s work over the years.

“Now that you have seen some aspects of the work carried out by the SEG, I hope it highlights how important those duties are, and how seriously we take them. We are constantly seeking ways to improve the ability of the SEG to carry out its business.

“The increase in the complement has put considerable pressure on our existing accommodation, and we are due to move in a few weeks´ time to alternative accommodation at AWE Aldermaston, which is approximately eight times larger than the present facilities. This facility will be refurbished to the required standard, with decoration, furniture and an IT infrastructure to an appropriate level to enable the SEG to carry out its business in an efficient and effective manner.’


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Nukewatch Policy

We think that it is very important that Nukewatch continues to monitor the safety of UK nuclear warhead convoys, and that Convoy dangers are highlighted to the general public and those along its routes.

But we still think it's important that Nukewatch is not seen to be helping potential terrorists. So we do not put technical information on the websites such as vehicle number plates and short break locations in lay-bys. We only put out convoy movements in advance to our own network. This also means that we would not alert the media in advance, except to contact known and trusted journalists who might come along to report a convoy passing.