For many years, the MoD took the view that it wasn’t safe to drive nuclear warheads around in the dark. However, in 2005, they changed to a system of “continuous running” which cuts the time taken for the convoys to complete their journey from three days to around 24 hours.
For over 25 years, there have been regular warhead convoys between Burghfield and Coulport. Initially, when the new Foden articulated trucks were introduced in July ’92 there was a real push to get the new Trident warheads delivered to Coulport in time for the Trident submarine fleet becoming operational. At the same time, old Chevaline warheads were brought south for dismantling (note 1). For instance there were ten trips to Coulport in 1993. Once most of the Trident stockpile was either loaded on submarines or stored in the bunkers at Coulport, frequency decreased to 2-6 convoys a year.
The convoys take warheads back to Burghfield for checking on how the components are ageing and coping with exposure to the radioactive elements contained within them, and deliver the occasional new replacement warhead to keep AWE’s warhead building skills honed!
Before continuous running the routine was for convoys to take three days to travel north, and then after a number of days in Coulport loading and unloading, another three days to travel south again. (At that time the convoy vehicles were garaged at RAF Wittering so there was often another day either side when the convoys were getting back and forward from there to AWE). The overnight stopping places for these Coulport trips were RAF Wittering and Albermarle Barracks, or CAD Longtown.
In July 2003 convoys started using RAF Leeming as a stopover instead of Albermarle. In November and December that year the Burghfield to Leeming stage was done in one day. In 2004 three-day trips using Albermarle resumed but by the middle of the year everything was changing. Leeming was back in use and two-day trips were back. But, markedly, the long established commitment to only travelling during daylight hours was abandoned.
In March 2002 Ministry of Defence Police (MDP) took over control of warhead transport from the RAF. With the MoD’s move in 2005 to running Burghfield/Aldermaston to Coulport as a continuous trip, the MDP have been tasked to achieve what the RAF could not or would not perform: continuous and dark running. Nukewatch has been monitoring and tracking these changes and continues to do so despite the challenges one-day runs pose. Stop-off places on route for a brief break and/or crew change have been changeable and new military establishments being used for a break on route. These have included, Fulwood Barracks in Preston, Weeton Camp near Blackpool, MoD Stafford, Chetwynd Barracks in Nottingham, MoD Kineton Warks, and in Nov 2007 getting lost on the way to a stop-off point at DSDA Forthside, Stirling. With these changes, many new councils find they have nuclear warheads passing through their authorities.
Nukewatch will continue to track and monitor these changes to convoys and pass on new information as it becomes available.
Risks of Continuous Running
Nukewatch’s experience of daylight runs leads us to consider that the stress on crew engaged in this nuclear transport operation is significant, especially when a breakdown occurs and the journey time is extended. There can be a sense of personal vulnerability in open spaces and uncertainty of how the problem will be resolved. Training on a military base with unladen trucks does not prepare crews fully for a breakdown or accident on the road in darkness which would add a further layer of stress. Training for the 500 mile journey may give a false sense of security and road traffic accidents remain the greatest hazard.
Although quieter at night there are increased risks in the dark particularly in bad weather. We understand that the motorcycle outriders are withdrawn from driving in the dark in severe weather conditions.
With changes in route and stop-off places, many new communities are being affected.
MoD documents released under the Freedom of Information Act say that the change to continuous running, “if inadequately conceived or implemented, would have the potential to create a significant hazard to the operation”(note 2). Dangers cited included poor visibility at night, tiredness and getting lost (something the convoy, or part of it, did twice in 2007).
1. Chevalines were taken to RAF Honington in East Anglia for storage so that dismantling could wait until the Trident warheads were all built.
2. See http://www.robedwards.com/2005/07/nuclear_convoy_.html