Published: 19/12/2016 14:12 - Updated: 19/12/2016 14:15

Monaghan calls on PM to stop nuclear flights

Dr Paul Monagahan
Dr Paul Monagahan

An MP has called for a halt to flights containing nuclear material from a North airport - describing them as "highly unsafe."

Dr Paul Monaghan has now written to Prime Minister, Theresa May, requesting that the flights stop immediately "until expert safety reassurances are provided." He said his constituents in Sutherland and elsewhere were at risk.

The move follows new documents released by Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) under a Freedom of Information request.

They have revealed that flights of weapons-grade uranium from Wick John O’Groats Airport to the United States aboard US Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft are in alleged breach of runway safety limits.

Between April and August 2016 the runway at the airport underwent a £8 million resurfacing upgrade ahead of the first transport of weapons-grade uranium that took place on September 17.

The newly released documents revealed that HIAL had commissioned the US engineering firm AECOM to examine the structural suitability of Wick’s runway for C-17s in October 2015.

The report states that when considering Ministry of Defence safety standards most of the runway was deficient and that “the movements of the C-17 will not meet the necessary criteria for normal overloading operations as stated in the guidance and thus should only be allowed in emergency situations.”

The report concluded that “cracking of the asphalt material is to be expected under the overload operations, but not so as to be classed as pavement ‘failure’. Routine inspection and maintenance after Boeing C17A loading is therefore recommended,” according to civil airport company BAA safety standards.

The AECOM report lead to the publicly-financed £8 million upgrade, however, within the documents released by HIAL, and by the UK Government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) it was found that the middle 1,390 metres of the 1,825 metre long runway at Wick were not included in the upgrade.

Previously it had been claimed that US Air Force C17 Globemaster aircraft being used by the UK Government to transport Highly Enriched Uranium to nuclear facilities in the United States are unable to take off safely from Wick John O’Groats Airport after landing.

Research revealed that the US Air Force aircraft require a runway length of 7,600 feet to take off safely and that Wick John O’Groats Airport is just 6,000 feet in length. As a consequence the aircraft are being routed through RAF Lossiemouth on both inbound and outbound flights with the suggestion that the planes are being drained of fuel at Lossiemouth to reduce weight to enable landing at Wick and then refuelled again at Lossiemouth before heading back across the Atlantic.

Dr Monaghan, MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, said it is now several months since then Prime Minister David Cameron set out plans to transport 700 kg of Highly Enriched Uranium to the United States from the Dounreay Nuclear Facility in Caithness during his attendance at an International Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. At the time commentators were surprised by the announcement and considered the whole process to be rushed.

"The shipment of 700 kg of Highly Enriched Uranium is the largest ever movement of highly toxic fissile material out of the UK," said Dr Monaghan.

“We now know from these documents released by HIAL that the US company AECOM has estimated that there are significant deficiencies in the structure and surface of the runway at Wick, which has not been upgraded and is not considered suitable for the safe operation of these aircraft.

“The NDA and the UK Government are using Wick John O’Groats Airport in circumstances that are completely inappropriate and highly unsafe. I have written again to the UK Government asking why these uranium movements are necessary, and why safety is being compromised.

“Information brought to my attention suggests that despite the enormous recent expenditure of £8 million upgrading the runway at Wick, there has been no change in runway length, quoted bearing strengths of the runway, apron or taxiways and that runway is simply too short for safe use by the Boeing manufactured Globemaster aircraft. My information suggests that the RAF designates Wick John O’Groats Airport as 'RFF category 4' but that Globemaster aircraft require a RFF category 8 runway. The fact that the runway at Wick is 1,600 feet too short to allow safe use is enormously worrying.

“To put this in context it is worth noting that Wick John O’Groats Airport is located less than 1,600 feet away from houses, schools and businesses in Wick.

“My first concern is for the safety and wellbeing of people in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands, and indeed the whole of Scotland. Now that it has been confirmed that these highly toxic materials are being transported by air despite the obvious deficiency in runway length and strength raises further significant concerns.

“The information now available to me suggests that the UK Government intends to fly the 700 Kilograms of Highly Enriched Uranium out of Wick, John O’Groats Airport in multiple flights using these large military aircraft. It now seems clear that multiple flights are required because the aircraft are operating beyond the limits of their capability while carrying cargoes that would have catastrophic effects on life and the environment should anything go wrong.

“Throughout this entire debacle the UK Government has been less than open and transparent regarding arrangements to move the 700kg of weapons-grade uranium. The onus is now on the UK Government to start treating the people of my constituency with respect and to ensure that all fissile material being removed from Dounreay is transported at no risk or expense to the people of my constituency, Orkney and Moray.

“I have written to the Prime Minister, Theresa May, requesting that these flights stop immediately until expert safety reassurances are provided, and until the UK Government discloses the full risk assessments surrounding these movements. I want to see and be convinced that arrangements are in place to categorically ensure the safety of communities being overflown by these massive aircraft. The UK Government has no excuse not to ensure that this material is transported safely.

“I have made it clear to the Prime Minister that I hold her personally accountable for the safety of my constituents. There is no room for Theresa May to hide behind her ministers or government on this issue. The Prime Minister has sanctioned these flights and my constituents deserve to know the facts.”

A HIAL spokesman said:“The runway at Wick complies with current industry standards and specific areas were strengthened in late summer 2016 specifically to accommodate a limited number of movements by large aircraft such as the C-17.

“Inspections are regularly carried out in accordance with normal airport operating procedures. No damage has been found. HIAL has no comment on specific aircraft movements.”

The NDA confirmed it had commissioned a report into the suitability of Wick airport for the flights that had identified the need for improvements.

A spokesman said: “These improvements were carried out successfully, and the airport now meets the required criteria for safe and secure transportation of nuclear material. The removal of nuclear material from Dounreay is ongoing, and it is the priority to comply with regulations governing safety. This includes protecting information about ongoing operational activities.”

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