Dave Watt writes: A recent study revealed that the US Navy is known to have experienced at least 380 major nuclear weapons incidents, but the details are not known, as most of these occurred at sea. The following story is based on an imaginary event with a British nuclear submarine close to land. The sequence and severity of the event was produced by a random number generator, although the post event weather came from the Meteoprog weather archive.
“In 40 years we have never had an accident” Commander Eric Thompson, Faslane 2009
“MOD admits to 16 nuclear submarine crashes” Sunday Herald, 7 Nov 2010
“We will always get advanced warning if something was to go wrong” Alan Moore, MOD spokesperson
30th April 1992. MOD fails to inform Plymouth Council of a serious fire on a nuclear submarine in the port. “It was a bureaucratic mess up”. Captain David Hall, Chief Staff Officer (Nuclear) at Devonport
Potassium iodate tablets, for use in the prevention of thyroid cancer in the event of radiation leaks have been issued to 17 schools and 17,500 households around Devonport. No potassium iodate tablets have been issued to any schools or households around Faslane.
“I should imagine that two or three independent Highland companies might be of use; they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and it will be no great mischief if they fall” General James Wolfe (1727-1759)
Detailed reports on nuclear submarine accidents are routinely destroyed after only 10 years. “This may explain why they keep repeating the same mistakes” John Ainslie, Scottish CND
While the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl was in progress, rainfall in Govan, Glasgow was found to have a radioactive content.
Monday January 2012: Faslane Submarine Base, Holy Loch, Scotland.
Stores are being loaded on board the vessel and test runs of the engine and electronic systems are underway. Submarine support vessel HMS Forth is also preparing to land alongside the quay and is reverse-manoeuvring beside HMS Astute.
Approximately 2:17pm HMS Forth appears to encounter some control difficulties as her turn towards the jetty has her stern facing the rear of HMS Astute’s hull at an acute angle. A furious spray of foam and gushing water came from under HMS Forth’s counter and she suddenly speeds up in the last few seconds heading straight for Astute. Her ship’s siren alarm blares a loud warning and is still blaring as her stern crashes into Astute’s pressure hull driving it into the jetty, crushing plates and fracturing welds as Forth‘s rudder is mangled while her thrashing screws bite into the Astute’s hull. The scream of wrenched and tearing metal overcomes even the howling siren. The day has started to go horribly wrong.
2:19pm. By the time personnel from the nearby administrative buildings have reached the quayside and a rescue launch has arrived at the scene of the incident, it is obvious to onlookers that both vessels are severely damaged. Astute is settling visibly by the stern.
2:21pm There is a small explosion within HMS Astute’s hull and smoke is now coming out of the rear deck hatches.
2:24pm The base rescue services can be heard in the distance and the base’s general alarm joins Astute’s alarm and HMS Forth’s wailing siren.
2:29pm The seriousness of the event becomes even more apparent as the crew of Astute can be seen hurriedly evacuating the boat whilst base rescue crews are donning full Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) kits with respirators. Several figures on stretchers are carried from the sub’s forward hatches by the NBC-suited figures and smoke is now issuing from the conning tower. Firefighting and rescue personnel disappear into the hull of the sub and after a few moments Astute’s alarm stops. HMS Forth’s crew are being evacuated by the rescue launch and her own boats as her siren is also switched off. With the sudden deadening of the two ship’s sirens and only the distant whoop of the base alarm, it seems to onlookers that the situation has begun to stabilise. Fire and rescue crews disappear and reappear from the hull of Astute although the smoke remains as thick as before.
2:43pm The assumption that the situation has stabilised is found to be very optimistic as there is another crashing sound on board and the stern of Astute is seen to lurch, then settle further into the water. The hull is now lying at something like 15-20 degrees from the horizontal.
2:46pm Firefighter and rescue control are shouting to the crews on the sub and there is a movement of figures out from the rear hatches in Astute. A rescue Land Rover on the jetty speeds off towards the centre of the base. A few minutes later, the base general alarm stops and there is a sudden quiet broken only by shouts from the fire and rescue teams emerging from the forward and conning tower hatches. A firefighter rushes towards a rear hatch, but a gout of flame from it drives him back. He tries to get to the hatch several times, but each time the smoke and flames force him back to the conning tower.
2:54pm The comparative silence of the last few moments is suddenly broken by a new sound coming from the base centre – a loud, ululating howl that very few have ever heard before and then only as an exercise simulation. It is the base evacuation warning. It is joined by several loudspeaker vehicles driving around the base advising that this is not a drill and that the base must be evacuated at once. Ships and small craft immediately start to get steam up preparing to leave the base.
3:02pm A general warning of a possible radiation leak is issued to towns surrounding the base, but it is a national holiday and responsible authorities are difficult to contact.
3:08pm Police units at Helensburgh, Greenock, Rhu, Cove and Kilcreggan are advised of a possible emergency whilst hospital and rescue services at Port Glasgow further up the Clyde are also alerted. At this point, all radio contact with rescue and firefighting crews still on board is lost. It is believed that the angle of the submarine’s hull increased further and fractures in the coolant pipes resulted in a wave of heat and radiation pouring up the length of the hull towards the bows from the out of control main engine.
3:17pm From subsequent conflicting testimonies of onlookers on the Mambeg Hill overlooking the base, it was stated there were either four or five minor explosions within the central hull of the now half submerged Astute. However many explosions were actually heard, the result is to prove only too disastrous. Several caps from the mid hull silos blow open and a gout of flame issues from one, whilst three Trident II missiles are launched into the air from three of the others.
The first flies erratically into the air for several hundred feet directly south south west at an angle of about 30 degrees and, twisting in flight, plunges into the loch about 700 metres away. It lands tail first in the shallows beside the shore and cracks open with a loud crash. There is no fire or explosion.
The second also takes off at around 30 degrees and continues a comparatively straight flight, directly south for around seven kilometres, whereupon the engine flames out and lands on the hillside to the north of Rosneath, with a tremendous explosion as the fuel ignites.
The third shoots into the air to a height of around 600 feet and then seems to stabilise. Unfortunately, it flies directly south south east towards Greenock. As it passes over the shallows of the estuary before the town, a close observer flying alongside would probably be dismayed to see the decoy missile deploy from its pod, flare suddenly and start to turn west away from the track of the onrushing Trident II.
This would, however, probably be the last thing the close observer would have seen, as at 3:17:43pm, the one kiloton warhead ignites, incinerating the decoy drone and exploding 600 feet above the main stand at Greenock’s Cappielow Park, where an SFL First Division game is in progress between the local club Morton and rivals Ayr United.
This is the third nuclear weapon in the world’s history to explode over an occupied town or city.
In Greenock, it is the day after New Year and for some of the people it’s a chance to spend some money at the January sales. For a great many, however, the death of the once-famous Scottish shipbuilding industry on the Clyde and the generation of poverty that follows, means that their participation in the sales is mainly as onlookers. January 2 is also traditionally a day in Scotland for visiting friends and relations to celebrate the New Year. For some, the tradition is the New Year derby match and just over 1900 people are attending Cappielow as the Trident II goes off over the main stand.
The 2010 census rates the population of Greenock as 43,495 citizens.
An area of complete destruction on the ground covers about 200 metres around the ignition point.
There are no survivors within this area. Around 3000 people are instantly vaporised by the fireball which is seen from the centre of Glasgow, roughly thirty miles to the east.
In a larger area, covering about a mile, with a population of around 7000 people, from Ground Zero, casualties range from almost 100% to around 50%.
Of these casualties a combination of wounds and burns runs at 5%.
Wounds and irradiation are suffered by another 5%.
Wounds individually account for 5%.
Burns individually account for 5%.
A combination of burns, wounds and irradiation covers a further 20%.
A combination of burns and irradiation accounts for 40%.
The remaining 20% are irradiated.
The first plus point of the tragedy is that both local hospitals, Inverclyde and Ravenscraig, are outwith the immediate blast area, although both have taken some structural damage. However, the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) from the blast has stopped all electrical activity, which effectively means that both hospitals are going to have to try to deal with a huge and varied casualty list with facilities basically at Victorian medical levels.
There are also no moving vehicles or telephone communications within the EMP area, and people who would otherwise have survived will succumb to their wounds in the interim period. Roads will be blocked by rubble as rescue units are mobilised initially from Port Glasgow and Gourock and later from further afield. The housing and street lighting is out in the centre and east of the town and most of the rescue work will have to be done in complete darkness until sunrise at 8:46 the following morning.
In addition, there are thousands of minor blast injuries to people in Greenock and towards Port Glasgow which require treatment. The medical personnel around Glasgow and the Central Belt are about to encounter the kind of dreadful triage choices normally endured in a major war zone.
On board the submarine, the stay-behind fire fighting crews have mainly been obliterated in the explosion which launched the Trident IIs. Before this however, the fire and rescue teams have been seriously irradiated by the radiation blasting the length of the sub as the nuclear coolant pipes ruptured. Many of these and other base personnel require decontamination and immediate hospitalisation in a situation similar to that following Chernobyl. Unfortunately, unlike the Soviet Union in the Cold War, very few civilian medical establishments around the base, or indeed in Britain, have the training or facilities to deal with decontamination of irradiated and physically-injured patients.
Radiation spilling from the sinking submarine, which duly sinks at her moorings just after 4:15 pm, is washed around the loch by successive tides, and into the River Clyde where the current washes it down past Kilgreggan and Dunoon and out to the islands by Rothesay and Millport by Wednesday morning. The entire mouth of the estuary displays dangerously-high radiation readings. Radiation has also spilled from the two Trident IIs which landed in the loch and on the hillside opposite the base. The behaviour of the cloud of irradiated smoke and debris issuing from HMS Astute, the crashed Trident IIs and what is effectively a ground burst at Greenock, is now entirely at the behest of the elements.
Weather post-Z hour.
At the moment of the blast, the wind is blowing from the south west between 7 and 8 mph. This continues until around midnight on 2 January. Helensburgh and Port Glasgow are affected almost immediately by the Greenock radioactive cloud, and casualties are very heavy there as they are in Garelochead, immediately to the north of the now-abandoned Faslane base.
Callander in Perthshire is luckier, as when the spreading radioactive cloud reached there in late evening on 2 January, the town had been almost completely evacuated. Equally luckily at midnight, the wind swings to blow from the south, and by 3am, light rain and sleet fall over the West of Scotland for over four hours reducing the cloud but irradiating ponds, streams and woodlands, whilst the wind shifts still further to blow at 9 mph from the south east for several hours, threatening Oban.
Tuesday 4 January (Z-plus 2) In the early morning of Tuesday, the wind, gusting and patchy, swings between south west and west yet again over Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe, and the dark streaky cloud up to around 15,000 feet becomes ragged, as the wind swings yet again from the north west to threaten the Central Belt. A light rain fell on the region in late afternoon with the 10 mph north-westerly wind moving to the west in early evening and causing the evacuation of Auchterarder, Gleneagles and Crieff, whilst Perth is on a two hour evacuation warning. Ignoring the reassuring broadcasts on TV and police loudspeaker cars, people in Glasgow are crowding the M8, moving to the east away from the city. As traffic jams build up, people are seen to be hiking along the motorway and abandoned cars add to the congestion. In the early hours of 4 January, the wind continues to carry the cloud to the west at between 7 and 10 mph, although a welcome rainstorm reduces the cloud further.
Wednesday 4 January (Z-plus 3) With the weather forecast stating that the wind is to continue westerly, the populations of Perth, Coupar Angus, Dundee, and latterly Arbroath and St Andrews, are evacuated towards Aberdeen and the Central Belt. This is mostly completed on time as the cloud, although down to about half of the original size, covers most of the Tay valley as heavy rain in the region has washed settling particles into the Tay and out towards the sea. By this time, Aberdeen and Edinburgh are both reporting slight radiation traces in rainfall. Reservoirs along the east coast are being checked hourly for radioactive content.
Thursday 5 January (Z-plus 4) By early morning, the wind has dropped to 3 to 5 mph and the visible frontage of the cloud covering 8-10 miles is blowing offshore from the Dundee- Arbroath-Montrose coastline. By 3am there is light rain turning to sleet and snow for around four hours and the wind speeds upswinging to the north west for the rest of the day, with further light snow by late afternoon pushing the remnants of the cloud further out to sea.
Friday 6 January (Z-plus 5) Today sees the cloud dissipating further, with southerly and south westerly light breezes blowing it down towards the central North Sea where further light rain fell over the late afternoon/early evening.
Saturday 7 January (Z-plus 6) Intermittent rain and sleet and a gusting westerly breeze sees the visible diminishing cloud over the central North Sea. Despite this, the Angus,Fife, Fergus and Rolf platforms are evacuated. Berwick is reporting slight radiation traces in the rainwater.
Sunday 8 January (Z-plus 7) Gusting breezes and intermittent rain at 6 to 10 mph continue to vary between west and north west. Several platforms in the Danish sector of the central North Sea are evacuated.
Monday 9 January (Z-plus 8) Mid-morning -Esbjerg and Ringkobing on the Danish coast are reporting slight radiation traces in rain water.