British Planes Loaded with A-bomb Materials Flown to US; UK's Trident Subs Called 'an Accident Waiting to Happen'
February 29, 2016
Rob Edwards / The Guardian & Libby Brooks / The Guardian<
Britain's Ministry of Defence has admitted that planes loaded with tritium, plutonium and enriched uranium -- ingredients for atomic warheads -- were flown between the UK and the US 23 times in the last five years. Two emergency exercises codenamed Astral Bend envisaged planes carrying nuclear materials crashing. In 2015, a Royal Navy whistleblower was jailed after his 18-page report warned the Trident -- the UK's flagship nuclear sub -- was a "disaster waiting to happen."
MoD Admits Flying Nuclear Materials between UK and US
Rob Edwards / The Guardian
LONDON (March 1, 2016) -- Materials used in nuclear weapons have been flown between the UK and the US 23 times in the last five years, the Ministry of Defence has admitted.
Though the MoD does not give details, the flights are believed to have carried tritium, plutonium and enriched uranium, all vital ingredients of Trident warheads. They probably started or ended at the RAF base at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
The flights have alarmed politicians and campaign groups, who are worried about accidents causing widespread radioactive contamination. The MoD, however, insists that the transports complied with stringent safety rules.
The Guardian reported on 9 February that two MoD emergency exercises in 2011 and 2012 codenamed Astral Bend envisaged planes carrying nuclear materials crashing. One imagined a leak of enriched uranium and plutonium spreading up to five kilometres across south Wales.
That prompted a question about the nuclear flights in the House of Commons last week by the Scottish National party's defence spokesman, Brendan O'Hara MP.
In response, the government admitted the frequency of such flights for the first time. "In the last five years, 23 flights carrying defence nuclear materials were undertaken," the defence minister, Penny Mordaunt, told MPs in a written answer.
"All flights were between the UK and the United States on fixed-wing aircraft under the control of UK armed forces." Details of the cargoes were kept secret "as disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice national security," she said.
O'Hara said: "This answer is alarming and highlights a practice most of the public are unaware of. The MoD need to outline what risk and safety assessments they made about these flights and precisely when and what areas of UK airspace were used. I fear the MoD does not have a great track record on transparency when it comes to nuclear issues – and this answer clearly begs more questions."
Experts say that the UK and the US regularly exchange tritium, plutonium and enriched uranium under a mutual defence agreement. Anti-nuclear campaigners have tracked road convoys transporting nuclear materials between the nuclear bomb plants at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire and RAF Brize Norton.
The independent nuclear engineer, John Large, argued that the MoD's air shipments would not comply with international safety regulations for civil nuclear transports. A crash could "contaminate large tracts of land with potential radiological consequences for unprotected members of the public", he said.
Tom Clements, who heads a group monitoring a nuclear weapons plant at Savannah River in South Carolina, claimed that the MoD flights would not meet US standards for civil nuclear shipments. The flights had "disturbing" implications for the world's attempts to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons, he said.
Peter Burt from the UK Nuclear Information Service, a not-for-profit group, highlighted the high risks of air shipments. "The RAF regularly fly nuclear materials over large urban areas such as Bristol, Cardiff, and Swansea, which raises serious questions about what would happen in the event of an accident involving one of these flights," he said.
The MoD maintained that the air transports were safe. "The transport of defence nuclear materials is carried out to the highest standard in accordance with stringent safety regulations," said an MoD spokeswoman.
"In over 50 years of transporting defence nuclear materials in the UK, there has never been an incident that has posed any radiation hazard to the public or to the environment."
Trident Whistleblower Imprisoned:
MoD Accused of Avoiding Public
Scrutiny over Trident Whistleblower's Claims
Libby Brooks / The Guardian
SCOTLAND (May 19, 2015) -- The Ministry of Defence has been accused of avoiding a potentially embarrassing public examination of allegations made by the Trident whistleblower William McNeilly after it emerged he will not be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.
Able Seaman McNeilly, 25, is in the custody of Royal Navy police at an undisclosed military establishment in Scotland after he was apprehended at Edinburgh airport on Monday night.
McNeilly is instead likely to face disciplinary action for going absent without leave from the Faslane naval base last week after he published a 18-page report online claiming Britain's nuclear deterrent was a "disaster waiting to happen".
[Note: The link to McNeilly's 18-page report is no longer available on the Internet. Instead, clicking on the link leads to the following message: "Error
Bad request or the file you have requested does not exist.
Please wait few minutes and try again."]
John Ainslie of CND Scotland, who is trying to arrange legal support for McNeilly, said: "Had it gone [to criminal prosecution under the Official Secrets Act] then the navy gets a second round of publicity and the details surface again. From their point of view, this is a way to close it down."
A guilty verdict is likely to result in incarceration in a military prison, though the discretion to impose a lengthy sentence is believed to be limited.
The MoD said earlier on Tuesday that many of the allegations, which included 30 separate security and safety breaches, were anecdotal rather than secret and thus did not constitute a breach of the Official Secrets Act, which carries a far heftier potential jail sentence.
Ainslie said: "The concern at this stage is that he is being questioned but is not fully aware of his rights. There are obviously human rights issues with someone in this position."
Several experienced human rights lawyers have offered to assist McNeilly and it is understood that his family would be able to instruct them on his behalf if he was not in a position to do so.
But the MoD insists McNeilly's rights to legal representation are no different from those of a civilian. It confirmed he was not being held at the Faslane nuclear base and that it was too early to tell whether he would be moved to a more central military location in England.
A Royal Navy spokeswoman said: "The Royal Navy disagrees with McNeilly's subjective and unsubstantiated personal views but we take the operation of our submarines and the safety of our personnel extremely seriously and so continue to fully investigate the circumstances of this issue."
Since McNeilly's allegations were reported by the Sunday Herald, there has been some speculation that they amounted to the actions of a disgruntled or stressed employee. But Gary McDonald, who has been a close friend of McNeilly since they met at secondary school, describes him as "a sane, well-educated friend" who had genuine fears for public safety.
McDonald said: "I have known William since I was 13 or so. He wanted to join the navy for a few years prior and always worked towards it by keeping fit and healthy. He has never talked down the navy or Trident to me or in conversation with friends and would always be very aware when he spoke of his job out there."
McDonald said he was shocked when he first heard about McNeillly's actions and was mainly concerned for his friend's wellbeing. "William wouldn't be stupid to say things out of fantasy and is an educated guy who would not risk what he has to be just thrown in jail. Although his report wasn't perfect, he obviously had genuine fears for the safety of the public."
He said he hoped that online petitions, which have gathered thousands of signatures in support of leniency for the whistleblower, would help his friend.
Prominent politicians have also spoken of their concern for McNeilly's welfare. Brendan O'Hara, the newly elected SNP MP for the constituency of Argyll and Bute, which includes Faslane, said he hoped the MoD would exercise its duty of care towards McNeilly: "They have to look after him and investigate thoroughly what he has said."
On Monday, O'Hara urged the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, to investigate the report's claims, describing the apparent safety lapses as "extremely worrying".
SNP MSP Bill Kidd tabled a motion at the Scottish parliament on Tuesday morning, commending McNeilly's "courageous actions" and urging the MoD not to disregard the report's contents.
Kidd said: "It would seem that he has put the safety of the public before his own freedom. I hope that his rights as a citizen and human being are kept to the fore and that this case is kept in the public domain."
In the online dossier, McNeilly claimed it was more difficult to get into some nightclubs than to gain access to Britain's nuclear programme facility. Referring to a chronic shortage of personnel, he suggested it was "a matter of time before we're infiltrated by a psychopath or a terrorist".
He also detailed a fire on board a submarine and the inappropriate use of HMS Vanguard's missile compartment as a gym and accused navy chiefs of covering up a collision between HMS Vanguard and a French submarine in the Atlantic Ocean in February 2009.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.