Scottish Civil Authorities Failing to Assess Nuclear Weapon Convoy Risks
Following the publication of the Nukewatch Report Unready Scotland which highlighted the dangers of the the transport of nuclear weapons by road and the poor level of awareness and readiness at local authority level, Mark Ruskell MSP initiated a members’ debate in Holyrood in May 2018. At the conclusion of that debate Annabelle Ewing, the then Minister for Community Safety, indicated her intention to ask the Police and Fire and Rescue Services to conduct a preparedness review., after making the point that reassurance was necessary. The report on this review was published in June of this year and although it is a welcome and significant step forward, it contains a number of serious flaws.
A critical issue is the question of risk assessment. The review makes the very basic error of only taking into account the likelihood of a serious incident. Competent risk assessment, as an absolute minimum, includes in its calculation the potential severity of impact of an incident. There is nothing particularly arcane about this – likelihood and potential impact are the factors we assess in daily decisions, whether it’s a decision to cross the road or store petrol in the tool-shed. In the case of the transport of nuclear weapons a release of radiation would be locally catastrophic. This means that carting nuclear warheads about the country is a risky business. In fact, though it does not feature in the review, the Ministry of Defence acknowledges this, but claims that the risks are acceptable in order to maintain the UK’s nuclear weapon system.
That claim turns up another element in the business of risk – whether it is worth taking – the benefit question. Again, that’s a familiar thing in daily life -riding a bike, eating, going out without a coat. But in the case of nuclear weapon transport the benefit issue is far from straightforward. Under the Civil Contingencies Act the duty of risk assessment falls squarely on the shoulders of the key civil agencies, the police, fire and rescue, local authorities and health services. If these agencies are relaxed about the risks is that because they too are buying in to the perceived benefit, that they are content for their communities to take the risk because it is in a noble cause? That seems unlikely in Scotland with its majority popular and parliamentary opinion opposed to nuclear weapons. A more likely explanation is that to undertake a proper and competent assessment on their own account, rather than simply parroting an assessment given to them by the MoD, would be a very tricky, energetic and uncomfortable business. It would involve seeking out collateral expertise and running their own event scenarios. In short, too much like work.
There is, however, a rational approach to risk assessing the nuclear weapon transport that would not involve a great deal of effort. This would be too say that if a serious accident leading to a release of radiation took place, say, on the M74/M8 junction at Tradeston in Glasgow on a Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., we, the civil emergency services, would be unable to cope, we would be out of our depth. That would demand not only courage but humility – an awkward virtue for an agency or a government that perceives its future to depend on a reputation for all-round competence. There is however a helpful precedent.
In 2011 the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent said:
“(it) emphasizes the incalculable human suffering that can be expected to result from any use of nuclear weapons, the lack of any adequate humanitarian response capacity and the absolute imperative to prevent such use”.
That statement has done its reputation no harm whatsoever. In fact, its honest and authoritative declaration galvanised nations to back the adoption by the UN in 2017 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. A similar statement by the Scottish authorities on the threat posed by the nuclear convoys would have far-reaching positive effects.