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A high-security delivery of nuclear warheads to the south of England turned to farce when vehicles in the MOD convoy got lost on Scotland’s roads.
Three military trucks, each of which can carry two of the plutonium and uranium weapons, left the Royal Navy Armament Depot at Coulport, Argyll, under cover of darkness on Monday night.
Escorted and heavily protected by MOD police, Marines, a safety truck and fire engine, the convoy was headed for an Atomics Weapons Establishment at Burghfield near Reading.
But according to campaigners who followed the journey through Scotland, at least one of the vehicles took a wrong turning and ended up miles away from where they should have been.
Potentially, the blunder meant crucial decontamination equipment on board the safety truck was up to half an hour away from the warheads, without a police escort, on minor roads near Stirling.
Anna-Linnea Rundberg, who followed the convoy, said: “These horrific warheads should not be transported on our roads at all.
“The risks, including the admitted risk of a nuclear explosion in a serious crash or as the result of a terrorist attack, are simply too high.
“However, the very least we should be able to expect is that they keep such journeys to a minimum by taking the correct route and that they keep all the safety equipment with the convoy.”
The convoy’s journey started at Coulport – eight miles from Faslane – at about 10pm on Monday night, when the vehicles left the base where Britain’s nuclear weapons are stored and maintained.
The convoy was split into two groups – the front group contained three military trucks equipped for carrying nuclear weapons and explosives, police escort, Royal Marines and a fire engine.
The second part of the convoy, travelling a mile or so behind, consisted of a support truck, a coach and a tow truck.
The support truck contains spare parts and tools to deal with mechanical problems – and also, vitally, the decontamination unit in case of an accident or fire which releases nuclear material.
Miss Rundberg and friend Adam Conway, both in their 20s and members of campaign and monitoring group Nukewatch, were alerted to the movement of the warheads, and began following the convoy.
They trailed the vehicles from Balloch onto the M9 on the outskirts of Stirling, where the drivers were due a rest stop.
However, instead of following the quickest route, the safety truck continued south down the M9 for several miles before making an about-turn at a double roundabout and heading back into the city.
Mr Conway, 28, explained: “The vehicles are quite spread out on the motorway and it was dark and foggy, so we couldn’t see whether the front part of the convoy was still there.
“But even if it was just up ahead, it means the whole nuclear convoy was wandering about unnecessarily.
“I think it’s more likely that they were separated – and that should never happen. The support vehicle should never be separated from the warheads for more than a couple of miles.
“Even just an ordinary crash, especially with any sort of fire involved, would need the decontamination gear – the smoke could contain particles, the water used to put the fire out could become contaminated, or there could be gases released.
“There are only two possible scenarios here and both exposed the public to totally unnecessary risk.”
The warheads require to be checked every so often and batch samples are taken from Coulport to Burghfield and returned to Coulport after servicing.
This particular convoy was following the “live run” route to Burghfield, suggesting it was loaded with nuclear matter, and not merely on an “empty” training run.
After its apparently unplanned detour of about 25 miles, the safety truck stopped for a rest at Springkerse Industrial Estate in Stirling, before continuing its journey to Burghfield, where the convoy arrived on Tuesday evening.
The MOD yesterday refused to comment on any aspect of the incident, but the campaigners’ reports further stirred up a political storm over the Trident issue in Scotland.
First Minister Alex Salmond has always made it clear that he is against nuclear missiles being housed in Scotland.
And the anti-nuclear lobby was further fuelled by a seven-year MOD “incident list” uncovered earlier this year, showing 67 separate accidents, safety faults and failures in the nuclear convoys.
Green Party leader Robin Harper said: “I think this highlights our concerns.
“Although this may have been a relatively minor incident, things can and do go wrong.
“It’s not just the fact of a possibility of terrorist attack, but more that accidents do happen and always will.
“On a simple risk analysis, we would say that this type of material shouldn’t be on Scottish roads.”