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[] Grand Harbour accident could have led to nuclear contamination,
Throwback to 1974

Grand Harbour accident could have led to nuclear contamination

Herman Grech

A Royal Navy ship's mishap in Grand Harbour in 1974 which could have 
triggered a nuclear spill is among the blunders admitted by the 
British Ministry of Defence after decades of secrecy.

The Maltese government was not informed.

The MoD was forced to publish a list of 20 accidents and mishaps with 
nuclear weapons which occurred between 1960 and 1991, following a 
verdict by the parliamentary ombudsman in the UK.

In that period nuclear weapons were dropped or fell on four 
occasions, and other munitions struck atomic weapons four times. Four 
of the incidents happened abroad - in Malta, near Hong Kong, and two 
in Germany, the Guardian newspaper reported.

The Malta incident took place in Grand Harbour in February 1974 when 
two Mk44 torpedoes which were being removed from a storage rack fell 
a few inches onto a nuclear WE177 weapon on board the battle-cruiser 
HMS Tiger.

The MoD said that only "superficial scratching" on the plastic 
protective strips on the edges of the weapon's rear tail fin were 
caused. A leaked version of the accident, seen by The Times 
yesterday, says that a torpedo blast could have detonated an 
explosive in the weapon, scattering radioactivity in the sea and land.

The Maltese government was not informed about the accident, according 
to the board of inquiry set up to investigate the incident.

An official inquiry had subsequently criticised crew training and 
that the torpedo handling equipment was incorrectly rigged. 
Modifications were made to the equipment as a result.

Sir Kevin Tebbit, the MoD's permanent secretary, has had to disclose 
the list following a six-year campaign by The Guardian.

The MoD initially blocked the request submitted in 1997, prompting 
the newspaper to lodge a complaint with the ombudsman.

The list shows that trucks carrying nuclear weapons on British roads 
overturned on two occasions, and cars crashed into two convoys.

One accident "hushed up" by the MoD was in 1960 in Lincolnshire when 
according to the MoD, "an RAF nuclear weapon load carrier, forming 
part of a convoy, experienced a brake failure on an incline and 

In 1967, a Vulcan bomber carrying a nuclear weapon was struck by 
lightning at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.

In 1987 in Wiltshire a truck with two 950lb WE177 n-weapons skidded 
and rolled on to the side; a second truck also slid off the road. 
According to the MoD, only minor damage was reported.

In Germany in 1974 a WE177 was dropped while being loaded onto a 
plane at RAF Laarbruch, and in 1984 another WE177 was dropped at RAF 
Bruggen which reportedly caused base to shut for the period.

Since Britain started making nuclear weapons in the early 1950s, 
convoys have regularly transported missiles hundreds of miles on 
motorways and other roads from bases to the atomic weapons factories.

Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, described the designs of 
Britain's early nuclear weapons, from the 1950s and 1960s, as unsafe 
and primitive, and that the MoD was lucky to have got away with not 
having more serious accidents, including nuclear explosions. The MoD 
insists the accidents never caused radiation leaks but Shaun Gregory, 
a Bradford University academic who has studied the dangers of nuclear 
accidents, said that the ministry's descriptions of the incidents had 
the "appearance of being a sanitised version" of events and did not 
ring true.

He believed that there was little chance of a nuclear detonation, but 
an accident could have caused a fire or explosion which could have 
showered radioactive debris around the immediate area.


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