By Angela Haggerty
The Ministry of Defence is facing fierce criticism from MPs after an internal report revealed major failings in the country’s emergency response capabilities to a nuclear accident.
Dubbed Exercise Senator 2011, the mock disaster exercise tested the emergency services’ ability to respond to a motorway accident in which a convoy transporting a nuclear bomb is damaged, causing a radioactive cloud to begin spreading across communities in close proximity.
A Freedom of Information request revealed the emergency services encountered “great difficulties” in responding to the event due to a five-hour lack of help from MoD weapons experts.
SNP defence spokesperson and Westminster leader Angus Robertson MP said people living close to Scotland’s nuclear Faslane naval base would be “horrified” at the potential extent of the delay in action from the MoD to a catastrophic event in the region, while an MoD spokesman claimed the exercise “demonstrated its ability to cope” with a worst case scenario involving a domestic nuclear accident.
“A four hour target time to reach a nuclear accident is utterly unacceptable,” said Mr Robertson. “We know that the exercise, which simulated a nuclear convoy having an accident on the M74 was a catalogue of errors, communication failures and breakdown in systems which left agencies involved in the exercise in a near shambolic state.
“Any nuclear incident is the most serious of all – and the report on the way this particular exercise was carried out exposed huge safety concerns in the ability of the MoD to deal with a real nuclear accident in good time and in an organised way.”
The MoD exercise took place two year ago and involved more than 1,000 people and 21 public agencies, including the Scottish Government and the Cabinet Office. The report highlighted disorganisation between emergency services – leading to disputes between ambulance staff – problems with mobile phone signals, confusion over how to monitor radiation and confusion over scientific advice. One ‘victim’ was even declared dead as a result of “considerable delay”.
“The MoD had to send a team from the south-west of England to deal with this – when they are allegedly prepared for incidents like this at Faslane – and what we now know is that the MoD are happy with a four hour target before that team are even ready to leave Bristol and then travel to the scene of any incident, in this case just south of Glasgow,” Mr Robertson continued.
“That means there is a period of four hours written in to reaction time to gather the necessary personnel, assess the severity of any nuclear accident and then head off to the scene.”
Such emergency response tests are necessary to enable services to assess how equipped they are to manage a crisis, with Exercise Senator particularly relevant in Scotland given the transportation of nuclear weapons between factories in Berkshire and the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Long in Argyll, close to Faslane Naval Base, which the Royal Navy website describes as “… home to the core of the Submarine Service, including the nation’s nuclear deterrent, and the new generation of hunter-killer submarines.”
The existence of the UK’s nuclear deterrent on the Clyde has created long-term controversy, with a Faslane Peace Camp permanently stationed a short distance from the base and protests continuing to take place. At a demonstration in April, 47 people were arrested for blocking the entrance to the base in a protest against renewing trident, which is set to cost the UK in excess of £20bn.
Mr Robertson added that many people were “baffled” at the location of the weapons base.
“There will be many people who are baffled as to why these weapons of mass destruction are dumped on the Clyde near out biggest city in the first place,” he said. “They will be horrified to learn that in the event of an accident involving these destructive and immoral weapons the MoD have built in a four hour delay before they even set-off from the south-west of England to Scotland to arrive at the scene.
“This exercise has exposed worrying deficiencies in the way a real nuclear incident might be dealt with. Only with a Yes vote in September next year can we be sure that Scotland is rid of Trident once and for all.”
An MoD spokesman said: “The Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator was clear that during Exercise Senator 2011, the MoD successfully demonstrated its ability to cope in the highly unlikely event of an emergency.
“Some improvements were identified to further enhance procedures and these have since been addressed.”
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