Case study 2: slipping off the road - an excerpt from the Playing With Fire report
It was described by a leading politician as “one of the most serious accidents involving nuclear material ever to be made public”. Certainly it was the most visible – and embarrassing – accident involving UK nuclear weapons which has yet occurred.
The West Dean transport accident occurred on a wintry day in January 1987 when an RAF nuclear weapons convoy was moving WE177A tactical nuclear weapons from Portsmouth Naval Base to the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Dean Hill as part of “routine Naval transfers” of the weapons. The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was berthed at Portsmouth at the time, and it is thought that the weapons were being moved into onshore storage while the ship was at the port.
Shortly after turning off the main A36 road at around 3.45 pm, the convoy moved down a narrow country lane between the villages of West Grimstead and West Dean on the final stage of its journey to Dean Hill. A car approaching from the opposite direction stopped to let the heavy lorries pass, and the convoy escort vehicles and two of the four warhead carriers went by safely. However, as the third carrier approached the car the driver lost control and a combination of icy road conditions and the road camber caused it to slide off the road. According to the official inquiry report into the accident, “Both front and rear nearside wheels of the TCHD [Truck Cargo Heavy Duty – meaning a warhead carrier] ran onto the verge, which gave way. The TCHD toppled to its left, coming to a halt on its side in a field three feet below the level of the road”. The driver of the civilian car told the inquiry “I heard a sliding noise and a thump and I looked round and saw the vehicle lying on its side in a field”. The fourth warhead carrier in the convoy slewed across the road on the ice as the driver braked and came to rest precariously balanced on the verge, with its front wheels off the road.
Troops from the Royal Air Force Regiment and Royal Marines who were travelling with the convoy immediately placed a security cordon around the site and were soon joined by reinforcements from the Ministry of Defence Police based at Dean Hill. The convoy crew alerted the civilian emergency services and experts from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) were called out to advise on whether the stricken trucks could be moved safely.
The fourth truck, still on the roadway, was winched back on to the road and was able to move away under its own power but the vehicle which had fallen into the field proved more of a problem. Heavy lifting gear was called for, arc lights set up, and the recovery team worked through the night in temperatures of –10 degrees Celsius, first inspecting the warheads and then packing the back of the truck with padding to prevent them from moving when it was lifted. At first light the truck was righted and lifted back onto the road by a 50 ton crane and, 18 hours after the accident, was towed ignominiously into the Dean Hill base under heavy military escort with helicopters hovering overhead.
When the accident happened the warhead convoy was being tracked by members of the 'Polariswatch' monitoring group, who immediately alerted the media. As a result film footage of the night-time recovery operation was broadcast as the lead story on prime time news bulletins and made the front page of the following day's newspapers. Protesters managed to infiltrate the police cordon around the crash site and get to within 50 metres of the toppled lorry where they were stopped by armed soldiers. One of the protesters, Sarah Graham, said “we were told if we advanced any further they'd shoot us, they were carrying live ammunition”. The troops told her that she knew “even more than they do” about what was happening as the situation developed.
The Ministry of Defence sent a media team to the crash site, but refused to say whether the convoy had been carrying nuclear weapons. MoD spokesperson Keith Ansell said: “All I can tell you is that a military transport vehicle suffered an accident this afternoon and we are now endeavouring to put it right”. When asked by reporters whether local people were at any risk, he replied “I can tell you there were no casualties.”
Documents subsequently released by the Ministry of Defence under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the convoy had been transporting six WE177A nuclear weapons and that each of the two trucks involved in the crash had been carrying two warheads. The four weapons involved in the accident were inspected over the next few days at the Dean Hill base by personnel from AWRE and the Royal Aircraft Establishment and were deemed to be “safe for movement and storage in the magazines”, although as two of them were approaching their refurbishment date, “it would be prudent to refurbish prior to Service return”.
The Ministry of Defence was heavily criticised for allowing the convoy to take to the road in poor weather. Opposition defence spokesperson Martin O'Neill said that if nuclear material had been involved in the incident, it would be “one of the most serious such accidents ever made public” and said that it “defied reason” for the convoy to have been sent out in such treacherous weather. ITN News asked whether, “faced with last night's icy conditions, should the convoy have moved at all?”
An RAF Board of Inquiry was set up to investigate the incident and found the cause of the accident to be “a combination of slow forward speed, the camber of the road, slippery conditions, the soft verge, and the position of the stationary civilian car.” All personnel involved “were considered to have shown adequate care” and “no person was held to be blameworthy”. However, the inquiry team heard evidence from the Ministry of Defence Police officer in charge of policing at Dean Hill who told them that “the road from West Grimstead is particularly prone to icing” and that the local Council was “notorious in this area for failing to grit the minor roads”. He said that he was “not advised of the route the convoy was taking” and was “very surprised, as this road had never been previously used in my experience”. The Board of Inquiry recommended that in future Convoy Commanders should confirm with their destination base that there were no local factors which might affect their journey, and that country roads taken by warhead convoys should be resurveyed to ensure they were safe to use.