Glasgow’s Fallout

Convoys carrying nuclear warheads for Trident have been passing through Glasgow for years- what could happen if one were to crash?

George’s Square is deserted. A thin dust hangs in the air, obscuring the already meagre grey light percolating through the gloomy sky above. A few pigeons huddle in the eaves of the city chambers, emitting croaky coos to their fallen brethren who scatter the pavements below. A few streets away, shards of glass are tousled listlessly by the wind- groaning through shattered shop windows. Further afield, on the M74, the empty shells of abandoned cars litter the road- dented, crumpled, overturned. Not everyone got away.

Byres road is dark. Generous helpings of duct tape stretch around the perimeter of windows and doors, glinting sombrely. Here and there windows are blacked out with boards of plywood, whilst plastic sheeting flaps, ghost-like, around doors. A few fine motes of dust dance in the breeze and settle innocuously on paving slabs. The looting was worse here. Around the West end, frantic scrambling for canned goods and bottled water left most newsagents ransacked.

North east of the city, for miles, the thin aura of dust stretches on. Although it’s barely visible, its deadly contents has seeped into topsoil, vegetation, and water alike. More duct tape adorns the sparse array of houses, sealing their openings against the insidious intruder. Some fields of crops have been covered with polythene, others merely abandoned.

It happened a few days ago. A convoy carrying nuclear warheads for Trident was involved in a collision in central Glasgow. It was incredibly unlikely, unbelievably improbable, said the MoD. One of the lorries carrying uranium and plutonium lost control and was overturned. Another vehicle collided with it. The warheads were breached.

Nobody was prepared. Ambulances, fire brigades, and police rushed to the scene, but it wasn’t immediately clear that this was more than a motoring accident. The government does not inform local authorities when convoys like this one will be passing through. Hours later, news reports describing the incident blazed from television and computer screens all over Glasgow- this was unprecedented. People panicked. Given the hugely elevated levels of radioactivity the crash caused, those who could were advised to leave the city and head south. Levels of radiation exposure increased from 1.2 to over 30 millisieverts in the city centre-in other words, 30 times the dose usually caused by background radiation. Exposure to these kinds of levels has been shown to significantly increase the risk of cancer. In the countryside to the north-east, levels increased to over 3 millisieverts. Radioactive plutonium and uranium atoms were harboured by dust- a single mote, lodged in a lung, would prove fatal. The prevailing north-easterly wind dispersed this cloud in a cigar-like shape for around 7 kilometres. Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years- recovery will be slow…

Whilst I’ve enjoyed riffing on all the clichés of a post-apocalyptic vision, the fact that 43 incidents have befallen these convoys (including breakdowns, collisions, and mechanical failures) in the last 3 years, means that this scenario is not as unlikely as we’d like to think. A recent simulation of a crash in Glasgow has been carried out by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND), using software developed by the US defence department. The simulation, whilst unsettling, does provide a valuable insight into the effects of a collision- particularly pertinent since there are currently no emergency plans in place. The results were discussed at a recent public meeting, hosted by the SCND in Glasgow.

The fact that these convoys are essentially unannounced is, frankly, terrifying. No local authorities, not even the Scottish Parliament, are made aware of their passing, as they traverse the 500 mile journey between the Royal Navy Armaments depot on Loch Long, and the bomb factory at Burghfield in Berkshire. The MoD argue that that revealing scheduling and route information would pose a risk to national security- but, then again, so does lugging weapons of mass destruction up and down British motorways. Campaign groups such as the SCND believe that a referendum should be held on the continuation of Trident: the ‘self-defence’ initiative which could, potentially, kill us all.

[Bethany Garner]

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