The British Ministry of Defence has admitted that materials used in nuclear weapons have been flown between the UK and the US 23 times in the last five years.
The information was revealed in an answer to a Parliamentary Question asked by the Scottish National Party’s Westminster group defence leader Brendan O’Hara.
Though the MoD did not give details, the flights are believed to have carried tritium, plutonium and enriched uranium, which are needed for UK’s Trident nuclear warheads.
The shipments reportedly started or ended at the RAF base at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
The Guardian reports:
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.