Nuclear convoys

Nuclear warheads are regularly transported along the roads of England and Scotland. They are carried in specially designed trucks in convoys that include armed escorts, communications and breakdown vehicles.

For many years these nuclear convoys were kept secret not only from the general public and press but from the local authorities, including Emergency Planning Officers and even traffic police, fire and medical services.

Now however, after regular, careful tracking and publicising of the convoys by anti-nuclear campaigners, the Ministry of Defence has had to admit their existence and has published on a restricted basis their emergency instructions in case of an accident.

» Find out more about the Nukewatch network against road transportation of nuclear warheads.

Warhead Carriers
Foden ‘Truck Cargo Heavy Duty Mark 2’ are large, green, articulated lorries. They have an air-conditioning unit on the roof and spikes around the top of the cooling unit at the back of the driver’s side of the cab. The tractor unit has four axles and the trailer is covered by a green tarpaulin. Apart from military number plates, the vehicles are unmarked.    

Also in the convoy...    

  • A spare tractor unit in case of any problems with a tractor unit.    
  • A green military fire engine always travels directly behind the last warhead carrier.
  • A convoy support vehicle carries radiation detection and decontamination equipment as well as spare arms, ammunition, rations, communications equipment and motorcycles. It is similar to a large green furniture van with blue lights on the roof.    
  • A heavy duty tow-truck in case of breakdowns.    
  • 2-3 RAF Police motorcycle outriders whose role is traffic control, allowing the convoy to go through traffic lights and around roundabouts without stopping.
  • 4-5 pale grey Transit vans travel in various positions along the convoy and carry armed Royal Marines from the Commachio Company.

The following video, produced by NukeWatch, is of a convoy leaving AWE Burghfield for Couplport:

What are they carrying?

The regular convoys carry nuclear warheads for Britain’s Trident nuclear-missile. New warheads are sent from the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Burghfield, near Reading, where they are assembled, to Coulport in Scotland, near where the submarines are based. Since the warheads have a limited shelf-life, they also have to be returned to Burghfield for overhaul.

There are also occasional movements of what are known as Special Nuclear Materials. These include convoys, probably of nuclear warhead parts or of complete warheads, between AWE Aldermaston, near Newbury, and RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, from where they are flown to the United States. (usually to Dover Air Force Base in New York State).

This traffic is highly secret - so much so that the Ministry of Defence will not even admit its existence. The convoys are much smaller and usually consist of one or two large, dark blue armoured trucks with police escorts in Transits and Range Rovers.

Other convoys carry Highly Enriched Uranium (fuel for submarine reactors) between Aldermaston and Rolls Royce, Derby and plutonium (the nuclear explosive for warheads), between Sellafield in Cumbria and Aldermaston. Finally there are occasional convoys between Aldermaston and Coulport: contents unknown.

Which routes do they use?

The final manufacture and assembly of all British nuclear warheads takes place at Burghfield, near Reading. They also have to be taken back there at regular intervals for maintenance and finally for scrapping. The other destination for convoys is the warhead store at Coulport, just a couple of miles from the Trident submarine base at Faslane, west of Glasgow.

The routes vary, particularly between Burghfield and Scotland but most of these convoys travel via the M4, M25 and A1 as far as Newcastle and then on through Glasgow.

How often do the convoys run?

On average there is a convoy movement once a month. Many of these are for training purposes with a limited number of fully-laden movements. Until 2004 the conyos only moved during daylight hours so took several days to reach their destination, but a change of MoD policy means they can now make the 500 mile road trip in one go. Convoys travelling in the dark present an even greater hazardous to those they share the roads with.

What are the dangers?

Compared with similar American warheads, several safety features are missing from the British Trident warheads. However in case of an accident, a nuclear explosion while possible, is still extremely unlikely. Much more likely is damage to a warhead caused by either fire or impact. Since all nuclear warheads contain some conventional high explosives, these could then detonate and scatter plutonium or uranium dust over a wide area.

Plutonium, in the form of dust, could be carried several miles down wind. Plutonium is deadly if breathed in. One speck lodged in the lungs is likely to lead to cancer. Plutonium remains lethal for 24,000 years. It could therefore be necessary, depending on the wind, to evacuate an area of up to several dozen square miles. Every surface, including topsoil and vegetation, would be contaminated as would all water.

The routes regularly used include not only motorways but ordinary single carriageway roads, often passing close to or even through large towns. Emergency planning officers have already pointed out that it would be completely impossible to evacuate, for instance, central Glasgow, in time to avoid the possible consequences of a traffic accident involving a nuclear warhead carrier.

Have there ever been any accidents?

Yes. Two warhead carriers collided in the middle of Helensburgh in Scotland. A carrier skidded on ice, ran off the road and overturned in a ditch at Dean Hill in Hampshire. Another carrier collided with a car on the A303, near Exeter. The car driver was killed. So far none of the nuclear warheads has been sufficiently damaged to release any radioactive material. Our luck may continue to hold. Or there may be a catastrophe next week.